Panel reflects on Irish growth, recent trade deal
Liam Kelly | Wednesday, March 1, 2023
The Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies hosted Kevin Byrne, consul general of Ireland to Chicago, in a panel Tuesday afternoon discussing Ireland’s relationship with the European Union (EU) over the past 50 years.
Byrne was joined by Clíodhna Ní Chorráin, an Irish Fulbright language teaching assistant, sophomore Connor Marrott, who is the son of Irish immigrants and Gráinne Malone, an Anthropology and Peace Studies major and resident of Offaly, Ireland.
Byrne reflected on the profound economic growth that Ireland has experienced since joining the EU.
“In 1973, GDP was €7.4 billion. GDP today is €500 billion, so that’s almost a 70-fold growth,” Byrne said. He also pointed out that Ireland is now in the top-10 countries in the world in the human development index, which is used to compare quality of life in different countries.
This growth has been helped by Ireland’s membership in the EU, Byrne argued.
“The Irish economy for the first 50 years of Irish independence was largely agrarian. They were relatively closed for the first 50 years of Irish independence, and they were heavily reliant on trade with our closest neighbor, Britain,” he said. “We can see that shift once we joined the European Union.”
Malone noted the significant role the EU has played in helping Ireland take steps to combat climate change.
“Being part of the EU has spurred action on climate change, because once we became a member, we had these targets that we had to meet,” she said.
Also discussed in the panel was the state of the Irish language. The panelists pointed out that currently, only 2% of Irish people speak Irish as their first language and only 12% are fluent in it.
Byrne placed the majority of the blame for these low numbers on Irish people themselves.
“The saddest thing about the demise of the Irish language is that it was a demise that the Irish people themselves were the parents of,” Byrne lamented.
The move of the Irish away from their language, Byrne argued, is in large part due to people’s perception of its usefulness.
“For so long in the history of Ireland, Irish was seen as the language of failure,” he said. “It was not seen as the language of economic opportunity.”
Byrne celebrated the movement in Ireland to increase the use of Irish in academic circles and said that this could lead to a revival of the language.
“I think if it’s something where it’s a real opportunity and something that gives you greater prospects, I think that helps to keep the language vibrant, not only just by somebody for sentimental reasons,” Byrne emphasized.
Malone added that she has personally seen this increase in the use of Irish.
Universities in Ireland are “making huge leaps at the moment just to have things written in Irish,” she said.
In 2007, Irish received full status as an official language of the EU, a move which Marrott both applauded and urged caution about.
“It’s expanded so many educational opportunities to learn the Irish language, but it’s also made the educational industry of the Irish language into a money-making industry,” Marrott said.
Chorráin pushed back on this notion, however, viewing the move by the EU as beneficial to the Irish language.
“I appreciate that that danger exists, but I think it’s more of a celebration,” Chorráin argued.
The panel took place just a day after British prime minister Rishi Sunak struck a deal with the EU to alleviate trade disputes between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland caused by Britain’s exit from the EU. The deal, known as the Windsor Framework, would require British goods going to the Republic of Ireland through Northern Ireland to be inspected at British ports, but it would allow British goods with a final destination in Northern Ireland to bypass inspection. The agreement will also allow the government of Northern Ireland to have more control over its trade policy with the Republic of Ireland.
This new deal, like the old Northern Ireland Protocol instituted by former prime minister Boris Johnson, does not impose a hard border in Northern Ireland, a move that many believe would cause instability in the region.
Chorráin commended the EU for working hard to craft a solution to the issue that would ensure peace.
“I think the European Union has been extremely generous to Northern Ireland in their flexibility and in how they keep changing their laws to try to pacify the Northern Irish government,” Chorráin said.
Although no members of the governments of the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland were present at the negotiations, Byrne saw the agreement as a symbol of growing unity between Ireland and the EU.
“One of the things I actually found really heartening was that, when the agreement was announced, there was an EU flag and there was a British flag. I took that as a really powerful piece of political theater, because what it actually showed is that Ireland’s interests are the EU’s interests,” Byrne said, “Irish, Northern Irish concerns were definitely front and center.”
Chorráin argued that the lack of Irish officials was necessary due to the polarization surrounding Northern Ireland.
“I think the EU and the UK needed to take matters into their own hands in order for anything to progress,” she said.
The panelists also reflected on the results of a recent survey — conducted in part by Notre Dame’s Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies — which revealed that 27% of those in Northern Ireland favor unifying with the Republic of Ireland, while 50% want to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The results come after a recent census showed that there are now more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Chorráin, who is from Northern Ireland, argued that some people might support unification in theory, but oppose it in practice, pointing to her mother as an example.
“My mom would be hesitant because she grew up in The Troubles, and she’s just happy now that she has a peaceful society,” Chorráin said.
Byrne pointed out that the current Catholic majority of Northern Ireland might not be as important a factor in the potential unification of Ireland as many may have thought.
“It’s often seen as a religious conflict,” Byrne noted. “It was never a religious conflict, it was always a conflict about identity. It’s just that Catholicism was a signifier for Irish identity and Protestantism was a signifier of British identity.”
Marrott echoed this point, pointing out that economic concerns might be more important now.
“I believe identity becomes less important,” he said. “The economic benefits of being in the EU might motivate [how people vote in] a border poll instead of identity, which I don’t think anyone would have predicted 30 or 40 years ago.”