The Limits to Euroscepticism in Ireland

Mary C. Murphy, University College Cork

With their closest neighbours having resolved to leave the European Union, are traditionally pro-EU attitudes in Ireland showing any signs of swinging towards Euroscepticism?

In Autumn 2016, a Eurobarometer poll showed that 77% of the Irish population was optimistic about the future of the European Union. This figure was the highest in Europe at that point of time.[i] Positive attitudes have tended to be the norm since Ireland joined the EU in 1973, and have been influenced by the economic, political and social benefits which Ireland’s membership of the single market and the broader EU project are believed to have delivered.

The level of public support has also been influenced by wider political and economic support for Irish membership of the EU. Today, the main political parties in Ireland are supporters of European Union membership and European Integration. Employers, trade unions, farmers, civil society organisations and the Churches are also largely in favour of Ireland’s EU membership.

Opposition to the EU has typically been confined to smaller political parties, currently including the left-wing Anti-Austerity Alliance – People Before Profit (AAA-PBP), a number of independent members of parliament, and a small group of dedicated anti-EU civil society organisations including Cóir, Libertas and the People’s Movement. Unlike other EU member states, Ireland holds referendums before ratifying EU treaties and these groups tend to be most visible during these campaign periods.

Ireland has not always been so strongly pro-EU

The strong Irish support for the EU, however, has been challenged. Twice the Irish public rejected EU treaties in domestic referendums – the Nice Treaty in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. The ‘no’ votes were later overturned following second referendums, and after additional guarantees were secured from the EU to assuage some of the concerns of Irish voters.

Irish support for the EU also suffered during the post-2008 global financial crisis when the economy experienced severe turmoil. Growth halted, unemployment grew, emigration rates increased, and government debt soared. The EU was perceived to have played a role in the crisis, and bore some of the blame for the austerity measures that were introduced in response to the recession. In fact, Ireland was among a group of countries to experience the greatest increase in Euroscepticism among the public during this period (and specifically between 2007 and 2011). A 7% increase in Euroscepticism in Ireland however, was considerably lower than the 23% increase recorded for Greece.[ii]

Anti-EU sentiments have failed to persist

Given recent Eurobarometer measures, heightened negative attitudes towards the EU have neither endured in Ireland nor have they led to the emergence of a strong Eurosceptic party or movement. The Sinn Féin political party has in fact moderated its ‘soft’ opposition to the EU, and campaigned in Northern Ireland for a Remain vote in the 2016 UK referendum on EU membership.

“Negative attitudes towards the EU have neither endured in Ireland nor have they led to the emergence of a strong Eurosceptic party”

Ireland contrasts with other EU member states, which have seen an increase in support for Eurosceptic and/or populist political parties and movements. In the UK in particular, the mobilisation of anti-EU forces played a key role in influencing the decision to leave the EU. In other member states too, including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and elsewhere, Eurosceptic and populist political parties are challenging the traditional dominance of centre-left and centre-right parties.

Why has Euroscepticism failed to affect Ireland?

“Attachment to the EU has remained largely resilient even during times of turbulence and instability”

So what factors may explain the Irish situation? Ireland’s experience of EU membership is one explanatory factor. The EU is broadly regarded as having played a positive role in the economic and social modernisation of the young Irish state after it acceded to the EU in the early 1970s. Membership has consistently been viewed and presented as being in the vital national interests of the state. During the UK referendum campaign on EU membership, the Irish government viewed the prospect of a UK exit from the EU and its impact on the European project, as a ‘major strategic risk’ for Ireland.[iii] This perspective, and broad attachment to the EU, has remained largely resilient even during times of turbulence and instability.

Secondly, the ability of Irish politicians to present and defend pro-EU views is aided by the historic absence of either a strong left wing tradition or a radical right party in Ireland. This has limited the space within which an alternative Eurosceptic narrative has been able to take root, and has allowed the moderate pro-EU centre-ground to dominate public discourse.

“Ireland has one of the most positive attitudes towards immigration”

This scenario can at least partially be explained by attitudes towards immigration in Ireland. Fears about immigration play a significant role in fuelling Eurosceptic and populist sentiment in many other EU member states. A recent Eurobarometer survey indicates that a comparatively low number of Irish respondents, just 10%, believe immigration to be among the most important issues facing the country. The same survey demonstrates that Ireland has one of the most positive attitudes towards the immigration of people from other EU member states and from outside the EU.[iv] Immigration was an important factor in driving Ireland’s economic boom, and perhaps more importantly, it is not seen as a threat to Irish culture. Its negative connotations are decidedly less pronounced in Ireland than in other EU member states. Therefore, concerns about immigration have failed to inspire the growth of anti-EU forces.

Will Ireland follow in the footsteps of its British neighbour?

Following the UK vote to leave the EU in June 2016, some commentators suggested that Ireland should follow suit. Discussion of the subject is not taboo, but there is no strong appetite for an Irish exit from the EU. The state remains committed to the European project and to securing a UK exit deal which is least harmful to Irish political and economic interests. For Ireland, the official narrative continues to depict EU membership as being instrumental to Ireland’s future and there are few objectors to this outlook or strategy.

[i] European Commission (2016) Public opinion in the EU, Standard Eurobarometer 86 (Autumn), p. 20 [available at:].

[ii] See F. Serricchio, M. Tsakatika, and L. Quaglia (2013) ‘Euroscepticism and the global financial crisis’, JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 51(1), p. 5.

[iii] D. Staunton (2015) ‘Brexit prospect “major strategic risk for Ireland” – Taoiseach’, Irish Times, 9 November [available at:].

[iv] See European Commission (2016).

Dr Mary C. Murphy is a lecturer in politics with the Department of Government, University College Cork.