Ireland’s continental connections

Joe Carroll

It is 40 years since Ireland joined the European Economic Community (EEC) so virtually two generations have little knowledge of the prolonged campaign from 1961 to 1973 to achieve membership.

When asked to vote on the various referenda on widening and deepening the now European Union, very few realise what a struggle it was for Ireland to become a full member in the first place.

We were so unfit economically and politically for full membership back in 1961 that the six existing member states thought it might be a mistake, and that we really meant associate membership.


Our official application was actually posted to Brussels from Dublin and boiled down to saying that as we were so economically dependent on Britain we had to do whatever she did and follow her into the EEC. We showed no interest in the political aspect of European integration.

As a result the six at first politely refused to open negotiations with us while proceeding to do so with the other applicants, Britain, Denmark and Norway. It took over a year of hard work by Irish diplomats and trips by the then Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, to the European capitals to undo some of the damage of this first botched application.

It was to be another decade before enlargement took place. The twists and turns of the Irish ‘tortuous path’ to membership have now been widely researched and written about but mainly from an Irish perspective aided by the opening up of the official archives in Dublin.

Dermot Keogh of UCC history department (now retired) long had the ambition to explore this path as seen by our European partners. What do their official archives reveal of Ireland’s journey along the path to membership? This book is the end result of that ambition and is an absorbing account of how Bonn, Paris, Rome, the Hague, Brussels and Luxembourg gradually came around to accepting that Ireland had the credentials to be a full member of the EEC.


France and the then Federal Republic of Germany were the two most influential members and the ones with the most reservations about Irish suitability. Irish neutrality was seen as undermining the security of the six which were all members of NATO and dependent on US nuclear strength to deter any invasion from the Soviet Union. Ireland’s economy in 1961 was unlikely to survive the opening up of its market to full competition. 

The most interesting part of the book is the inside story of how Paris and Bonn gradually dropped their opposition to opening negotiations with Ireland. Lemass convinced France and West Germany that Ireland would be willing to join in the defence of the EEC in spite of neutrality. The only reason we had not joined NATO was that it would copper-fasten partition.


Irish diplomats also cleverly used any evidence of historical links between Ireland and our future partners when pushing our application. We were not just an economic appendage to Britain, but had our own proud links with continental Europe going back centuries to courageous Irish missionaries and revolutionaries. We might smile at this today, but this was probably news to the foreign ministries of the six in mid-20th Century.

General de Gaulle was well aware of his own Irish ancestry through his great-grandmother, a McCartan from Co. Down. He treated visits from Lemass and later Jack Lynch with great courtesy, but in vetoing British entry in January 1963, he also brought Ireland’s bid to a halt before the negotiations opened.

It took another decade before Britain, Ireland and Denmark joined the EEC. The General had actually done us a good turn, as T.K. Whitaker has pointed out. We were then in a far better shape to benefit from full membership.

This intriguing book reveals how the original six discovered ‘the real Ireland’ as they dealt with the Irish officials and ministers who were pleading the cause of joining their European venture.