Ireland and the EU Post Brexit


by  Ray Bassett

first published 2020

Review by Stephen Kearney

Ireland and the EU Post Brexit is a very disturbing book.  In fact, I would say it is one of the most disturbing books I have ever read.   Let me make it clear; this is not about new or old cruelties, massacres, corruption of the innocent, historic injustices, ethnic genocides, climate Armageddon  scenarios or any one of a thousand and one activities committed by people that make you ashamed to be a member of the human race.  It is none of those things.  So, why is it disturbing?  Because it has challenged me in a way I feel I have never been challenged before.  And that is very disturbing.



disturbed heart face

I came by this book in an unusual way.  I’d never heard of Ray Bassett, a former senior Irish diplomat,  ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas (2010 – 2016), who also worked on conflict resolution in Northern Ireland, including the Good Friday Agreement.   Now, like so many, my partner and I don’t exactly see eye to eye on the EU, reflecting our different backgrounds and narratives.  In researching other views, she came across this book on Amazon and promptly bought it. Reviews seemed unusually hard to come by, but once again, my diligent partner found one. ‘Briefings for Britain’ was the host, a website I’d never heard of but it seemed to contain a suspicious quantity of Union Jackery – at least to my eyes.   Anyway, my partner thought it a good read but with only a be-flagged review of dubious provenance to go on, I wasn’t going to risk twelve pounds and ten shillings.  So I simply read her copy.


To go back to the beginning, as good a place to start as any, and in the beginning was a referendum.  Yes, in May 1972, we in Ireland had a referendum to permit changes to the constitution necessary to join the EEC or “Common Market” as it was more, yes, commonly known.   I voted for the change.  Why?  Because the Ireland I grew up in, without putting too fine a point on it, was a backward, repressive, inward-looking dump, shrouded in suspicion towards outside influences and dominated by a “climate of anti-thought”, as an Englishman described the place to me a few years later.  It wasn’t just anti thought; it was anti aesthetics, anti beauty, anti creativity and anti architecture – and anything else that required the exercise of grey matter.  Ireland appeared to specialise in creating ugliness,  seeming to see the practice as an expression of national identity.  The Irish writer, Dervla Murphy, said she sometimes thought of the place as “a dotty fourth-world country of which it was the only member”, an epithet of which the country would once have been proud.  As far as I was concerned, any change could only be for the better, anything that would open the place up to the outside world would be welcome.  Anything that would undermine the vice-like grip of that unholy alliance of the Catholic Church and village-minded politicians that had controlled the country for so long, mired in the clerical bog, would be greeted with open arms.


You can call me an extremist, as I was often labelled by the Old Man (Irish mothers weren’t allowed have opinions then) but then 83.1% of those who voted were in agreement – including the  parents.   So, voting to join the EEC did not make you an extremist per se.  Not a bit of it.  Indeed, most opposition to the ‘new world’ seemed to come from those traditionally seen as extremist in Ireland – the far left.  As a brother-in-law who once liked to adopt that mantle said in opposition to joining “The only people who will benefit will be the farmers and I don’t give an “F” about the  farmers”.    Ironically, the only major party that urged a ‘no’ vote was Labour,  some arguing “once we’re in, we can’t get out”.  83.1% by any definition hardly represents extremism.


Just as with Brexit 44 years later, there were probably as many reasons for people’s choices then as there were percentages.  But there seemed to be one overriding factor upon which all of that 83.1% were agreed.  We would get money!  The European Economic Community would give us money – just like that, as Tommy Cooper might have put it.  Money was the unifying factor.  That bit was fixed.  After that it started dividing.  The very sizeable religious right, the “Holy Joes” as I used to call them, accustomed to calling the shots since the foundation of the state, seemed to think that everything would continue just as before, only the EEC would be paying all the bills – a sort of reverse Brexit dogma where everything would stay the same after leaving, only there would now be an extra £350 million per week for the NHS.  Almost in confirmation of a national desire to stay stuck in the clerical bog, even after ten years of membership, a referendum was won in 1983 by a two thirds majority to make already illegal abortion unconstitutional, no less!  And, of course,  in utter defiance of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, of which the country was a signatory, divorce continued to be unconstitutional whereas contraception continued to be merely illegal.  But the Holy Joes still wanted the money.  As with so many who abstain from the progression of ideas,  they wanted the benefits of a modern industrial society without any of the slog or thought processes necessary to get there; or as the Old Man used to put it “The Irish always wanted to go straight from the horse and cart to the Mercedes.”


There was another sizeable group, essentially centred around sheer pragmatism: “if England joins, so do we – we have no choice in the matter.”  As England was by far Ireland’s greatest trading partner as well as sharing a common travel area and pegged currencies for half a century, it would be economic madness to do anything but join.  It was simply a case of pragmatism.  Where England went, we followed.


And then there were my kind of “extremists”;  my suburban comrades knew what we wanted – to escape from the clutches of that Rome based multi-national.   We all knew the place needed change – and needed it badly.   We saw this as just a beginning to a much brighter future; we weren’t quite sure of the fine detail of the direction, we didn’t read the small print, but we knew we’d started the journey.  This was just the beginning.  This was a journey that would lead somehow to the USE – the United States of Europe.  It would bring us into the modern world.   And I wanted it!  I wanted to be part of that modern world – just as the Jam sang about it.


Incidentally, if you’re wondering how that dysfunctional dump, masquerading as a normal country, managed to survive for so long without total economic collapse, there is a one word answer:  England.  Yes, through acting as a constant pressure relief valve in taking all the country’s unemployed, Ireland was able to continue its self-deceiving nationalist narrative,  continuing to evade its responsibility, while pretending to itself that its people were the best Catholics in the world.


But what exactly had we voted for?   Yes, membership of the EEC or European Economic Community, as it was then, was clear enough, but what did that entail, outside that catch-all label?   To be honest, we didn’t look too closely at the details and we hadn’t bothered reading the small print: anything would be an improvement on what we had.


Irish membership had been an aspiration for some time.   It’s one thing to want to join something, as the better class of clubs with long waiting lists will tell you, but it’s another to be allowed in.  When De Gaulle vetoed Britain’s (and by implication, Ireland’s) application in 1963, French was promptly dropped from the curriculum in a friend’s school.  But the hope remained: we still wanted to join the in-crowd!  In the late sixties RTE, the Irish broadcaster, ran a series of programmes under the title of “Into Europe”, to introduce us to the new world we were hoping to enter, the world of the modern.  There we learnt about Denmark, The Netherlands, and Germany, among others.   These “exciting, far-away places” all seemed so advanced, so exotic, so clean, so ordered and super modern!  This was the future – and it was obviously working.  Another member of the club, it has to be said, was England.  While not yet a member of the EEC, it was a member of the super modern club.  It possessed the two true symbols of modernity, pre-requisites for entry to the future:  motorways and underground railways.  Ireland was not to get its first motorway until 1996, funded by the EU, incidentally, and in 2021 it’s still waiting for its first underground railway.  Its main airport was opened in 1940 and that is yet to be connected by rail,  either under or overground.  So maybe the Ireland of today is only half modern!





Plane Ryanaire

So how did the EEC work out for Ireland?  Bloody brilliantly!   Yes, we got the money, as everyone wanted and indeed, the farmers, the very people about whom my brother-in-law didn’t give an “F”, were the initial beneficiaries.  Funded through the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), their living standards rocketed almost overnight.   And then the money spread to other areas, just like the Holy Joes had hoped.  What they hadn’t seen coming coming up fast behind, were the ideas – the nasty foreign influences that they had disdained for over half a century.   Things began changing, slowly at first, but gradually gathered momentum.  Personally speaking, it was probably around the early 1990s, that I started noticing the biggest change of the lot, observed on annual (will maintenance) visits: women.  Irish women now seemed much more confident than before and with that confidence came something else: sexiness.   All that religion of the previous half century had compressed them into a state of unappealing suppression, and now they were shedding their ugliness, morphing into strong, confident and intelligent attractiveness.  The architecture in public buildings started improving too, displaying imagination, style, flair and grace, qualities formerly deemed “alien to the traditions of the Irish people” as an Irish PM once described a proposal to legalise contraception.   And that got legalised too.  And later on we got divorce and abortion rights.  We got freedom!  One of old Ireland’s universally peddled nationalist narratives was that in 1922 we got freedom – Vatican style!   We might have had independence but we didn’t have freedom.  You had to England to get that.   On top of it all we got other rights too: we could work abroad – without let, hindrance or work permits.  Our escape valve had now expanded way beyond England, though it remained the preferred choice.  On account of the EU, I was able to work in France, Holland and Germany.  What’s not to like?   I think the Holy Joes would have their answers but so, as far as I’m concerned, the EEC, which later morphed into the EU, transformed Ireland from the “backward, repressive dump” into something approaching a modern state.  Yes we got the money, as everyone wanted, but we got more, a lot more: we got a shift in attitude.  After 60 years in the kindergarten, protected from all un-Irish influences by our very own versions of ‘Tail-Gunner Joe’, Ireland finally broke out and grew up. The Ireland of today is a very, very different – and far better – country than the one I left over four decades ago.


Now, I wouldn’t say all the improvements were down to the EU but that organisation got the ball rolling.  By bringing in the outside world and widening national debate and opportunity many fold, it changed attitudes.  More Irish began realising that a backward, repressive dump was not a pre-requisite for a (dis)functioning state.   It didn’t have to be like that, like they used to think; for half a century they kept voting to stay backward and repressed under, it has to be said, a far fairer voting system than the UK’s.  So, they chose to be backward.  At least the Spanish under Franco had no choice: backwardness was thrust upon them but the Irish, it seems, had sought it out!   And now, at last,  they were seeking something else.


Did we have any doubts at all about this wonderful institution?  In our enthusiasm we weren’t looking for doubts.  As mentioned, we weren’t too sure about the fine detail and we weren’t too fussed.  We knew we were going in the right direction and the future was looking better – a lot better – than our past.  The EU was delivering our agenda and when when you’re getting what you want, you don’t overly concern yourself with the details.  You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!


Yes, there were a few doubts – a few little blips on the radar screen but, like the American radar operators at Pearl Harbour,  we dismissed these as odd clouds, thunderstorms or flocks of birds and certainly not enemy bombers.  The actual connection between the ordinary people and those wielding the power seemed remote.  In both Ireland and England, I never knew who my MEP was and if I did, I doubt if it would have made any difference.   What do you write to him or her about anyway?   While writing to your Dublin or Westminster MP mightn’t have made much of a difference anyway, at least it gave you the feeling you had some sort of connection.  With your MEP you had none.  But it didn’t really seem to matter because it was all working so well anyway and continuing to head in the right direction.


But there was just one other little point of worry for me, a slightly bigger blip.  Tony Benn, a man of unquestioned integrity and a long standing Labour MP of the left – the real left, that is, not a focus group left – consistently opposed the EU on account of its lack of democracy and transparency: he wanted to know who were the people in power, who put them there, what they stood for and how they could be got rid of.  He used to speak thus with some passion, and with due regard to the man’s undoubted integrity, he used to make me feel uncomfortable.  The EEC / EU was an unalloyed blessing and yet I couldn’t gainsay anything Tony Benn was saying – so I parked him in a parallel universe along with all my other unresolved issues.   And in that universe stood Denis Skinner, a genuine left wing Labour MP and another blip.  He took the Tony Benn line too and muddled me.


And then came the Brexit referendum in 2016.  I was taken by surprise; indeed I was almost in a state of mild shock.  “How could the English have been so stupid?” was my first reaction.  As I saw it, it made no sense and it was never intended to.  It was simply an internal Tory party squabble that had gone wrong.  There had been no rational debate beforehand.   Britain, through the EU, had been part of the world’s largest market that had directly improved many people’s lives, offering freedom of movement, better consumer protection and higher environmental protection, among others.   The one solid point of leave concern was free movement, where some communities believed themselves to be swamped though, ironically, not in the areas of where immigration was at its highest, such as the major urban centres. Ironically again – there’s a whole heap of irony in this mess – what struck me about the leave campaign, assisted by decades of anti EU propaganda from the press, was its use of simplistic, fact-free, nationalist sloganeering spouted by obvious charlatans, the very sort of stuff we had to exist on in Ireland during our own decades of self-deceiving, destructive, nationalism before we wised up and got in.


And then in 2020 came Ray Bassett’s book, about 350 pages of it.  Bassett’s essential point is that while undoubtedly Ireland had prospered in the earlier days of our EU membership, the benefits are looking increasingly marginal, especially that it is now a substantial net contributor.  In a sort of reverse justification for joining, he argues that as Britain, still by far Ireland’s single largest trading partner, has left, then so should Ireland. But there’s more to it than that – a lot more.  It was the bit to come that made me uncomfortable.  I felt uncomfortable because I had not looked at the detail: the EU had been delivering my agenda, or at least coincided with a system that was.  Somewhere back in the 1990s as things were palpably improving in Ireland, especially in a liberalising social agenda,  one newspaper article stated that, in effect, “Dublin 4” (rich post code) was now running the country.   It was Dublin 4’s agenda that was now being implemented.  Who cared?  Who cared about the fine detail, the whys and the wherefores?; it was heading in the right direction and if that was Dublin 4’s direction too, what did it matter?   I doubt if the many beneficiaries of Germany’s economic boom in the 1930s cared too much either or looked at the fine details.  If it ain’t bust, don’t fix it.  Bassett starts trying to fix it.




Maintenance man

Ray Basset asks questions, questions he feels he was not allowed to ask while he was a civil servant.   Indeed, he states that the Irish government is in such thrall to the EU, that being seen to openly question it marks the end of your career.  Essentially he argues, along with a few others over the years, that while the Ireland of the past desperately needed development, it paid too high a price.  According to him we have given away too much of our own power – we are no longer masters of our own land.  Worse, we gave away our powers with no proper debate and no real understanding of the consequences of our actions.  He considers it almost criminal how we gave away our fishery rights to other EU countries.  Why?  Because the Irish fishing industry had been so underdeveloped for so long – a scandalous state of affairs for an island surrounded by vast fishing areas  – and so bogged down in the oft repeated phrase of the old Ireland, reflecting its “give-up-itis” -“it’ll never work here” –  that Irish governments over the generations had developed a ritual blindness to some of its best resources.  “Ireland”, we used to be taught in school, echoing the national fatalism,  “has no natural resources”.   Full stop!  But the EU, says Bassett, had other ideas and plundered and continues to plunder Irish fish stocks all because we had no idea of our own potential or even our own possessions.


Bassett makes our apparent passive collusion in the EU directed dilution of Irish independence, a central theme throughout his book.  As he puts it:

Looking at how the Irish state acquiesced in this process, it seems they are doing the precise opposite to what the founding fathers of the Irish state were attempting.


His concern at the sheer lack of awareness frustrates him, Irish people apparently happy with the way things are going, without realising the true cost.

Under current policies, the Irish State is sleepwalking into oblivion, without the bulk of our people, or even many of our politicians ever being aware of the nature of the project.


There is a certain unintended irony in Bassett’s observations.  Without any assistance from the EU at all, indeed long before the EU – or the EEC – was ever thought of, Ireland was already heading for “oblivion”, its population falling year on year since 1845, long before even the foundation of the state.  After its foundation, it just kept on falling.  It is the only country in the world, apparently, with a smaller population than 150 years ago.  To all intents and purposes, the new independent Ireland continued on a failing falling or a falling failing trajectory.  Indeed by the late 50s, by all normal standards such as population growth, employment, health services, cultural life, social services, benefits, education etc. the country was heading for extinction and its people were doing it all by themselves.   It had become a failed state.  The place was on the ropes, kept in the ring only by the “old enemy”.  They couldn’t blame this one on the British.  Up to just a few decades ago, every single Irish person grew up knowing that one day they might have to think about emigration – and for many it wasn’t just the thinking; they had to do it too.   So, either way, the country was going to disappear, but with the EU it would at least be a lot nicer   – you know, money doesn’t make you happy but at least you can be miserable in comfort.  Perhaps the Irish are simply a doomed people.


This is not to dismiss Bassett.  Some of his suggestions and observations make sense, and he does turn the spotlight on the unlit and that’s a good place for a spotlight.  He argues that most of Ireland’s present-day wealth comes not from the EU but FDI or Foreign Direct Investment, attracted by low tax rates.  He suggests that one of the reasons there is so little questioning of Project EU is that the Dublin 4 elite are in a position to get well paid and pensioned jobs in Brussels – the gravy train, in other words – and the other main reason is that the EU spends a lot of money – our own money, he reminds us – on pro EU propaganda making sure that everyone has the right attitude –  funny they never tried it in the UK.  Certainly in visiting Ireland, I am often struck by the multiple roadside notices proudly announcing that the project under construction is funded by the EU, in contrast to similarly funded projects in Britain where you’d be hard put to find the funder – if European.  He also draws attention to the imbalance in reaction to referenda results: if a pro EU referendum wins by even a tiny margin, that’s democracy at work.  If it loses, it is not accepted as evidence of democracy but of malfunction.  The referendum has to be re-run to obtain the ‘correct’ result.  No-one in their right mind would vote against an EU proposal – so there was obviously something wrong with the people: maybe ‘the people’ should be dissolved  and a new one elected à la Brecht.  But a new referendum with the people now voting the right way, would fix that.  I’m reminded here of British attitudes towards ‘lesser’ peoples in the days of imperial expansion.  Democracy and private land ownership were seen as marks of more advanced civilisations and reserved for them exclusively.  If they were discovered in societies that were deemed to be less advanced, it was not seen as evidence of a malfunction of the grading system – or, heaven forfend, progress!! No.  On the contrary, it was evidence of a malfunction in the society.  Something had gone wrong!  Something had to be done!  Democracies were dismantled and a chief installed;  private land ownership became commonhold.  Because that’s what the ‘natives’ really wanted – if they knew what was good for them!  Luckily the British empire was there to tell them.


Bassett makes a convincing case for Ireland to have handled Brexit a lot better.  While bitterly critical of the British government itself and especially of Theresa May, he claims that the Irish government’s anxiety to prove itself to the (rest of the) EU, has resulted in it taking a very hard line towards Britain.  Britain must be punished for the crime of leaving.  This, he thinks is foolish and not in Ireland’s long term interests; it has damaged old working relationships and will alienate British governments, present and future.  Ireland depends heavily on Britain, not as much as before but still massively, but instead of recognising this he argues, it is joining in its marginalisation, all for the sake of impressing EU central with its loyalty.  But in so doing Ireland is making a terrible mistake, a mistake that might not be forgiven.  But worse; it is missing a fantastic opportunity, all because it cannot see the wood for the trees.  It is here Bassett makes his strongest and most persuasive case.  He calls on the Irish government to recognise its unique opportunity; instead of slavishly following a “punish Britain” course, it should be acting as a softening agent as a uniquely placed go-between, to encourage contact and trade between the EU and an apparently beleaguered Britain.  He thinks this would be good for everyone – and he is probably right.


Ultimately Bassett argues that Ireland should quit the EU, almost appearing to suggest that as it is now a net annual contributor to the tune of (a carefully concealed, he says) €1 billion, there is not much point in sticking around –  mind you, going by that reasoning, Germany should have left a long time ago.    He also feels that Ireland was treated disgracefully badly by the EU demanding its pound of flesh to the tune of 25% of its GDP in the wake of the banking crisis of 2008 – an episode that was largely unnecessary.  Ultimately, therefore, the EU has been no friend of Ireland.   He argues that Britain, as a member,  actually shielded Ireland from the EU’s worst excesses – but now no longer.   Brexit has changed everything, and once that Britain, our largest trading partner and host to over half a million Irish born, has left, so should we, as a sort of reverse echo of the 1972 pragmatists: we have to go where England goes.  Of course, as as part of the Eurozone, he points out it would be difficult and he feels we should never have joined in the first place.  He believes that the Euro was essentially a creation of France, designed primarily to avoid the constant humiliation of the Franc being endlessly devalued against the Mark.

But what happens after we leave?   What do we do?  This is where Bassett, challenging up to now, starts to disintegrate for me.   He says that Ireland should strike up trade deals with Canada, the United States and Australia, something he feels would be easily achieved through the massive Irish diaspora in these countries.  He seems to see Canada in particular, where he was once ambassador, playing a disproportionally large role in a sort of trans Atlantic Gaelic revival, the diaspora that would deliver.     Irish eyes would be smiling from east to west,  inspired by those super trade deals.   We’d quit the EU for this?  You know for all the super trade deals about which we’ve heard so much talk, especially from Brexiteers and now from Bassett, I’ve never heard any analysis.  What is going to be traded?  Who is going to buy?  What is going to be sold?  Where do all the markets come from all of a sudden.   Bassett doesn’t tell us.  Quitting the EU in the hope that some vaguely connected diaspora members with whom you’ve enjoyed a few pints will give you a good deal, is a somewhat high risk strategy.  I used to work for a Jewish landlord who rented out commercial property.  I asked him one day, if he gave discounts to Jews.  “I’m always being asked that” came the weary reply “Put it this way”, he continued “would you give a discount to an Irish person?”  “No” I replied, positively scoffing at the idea. “Well” he came back “there’s your answer”.  Ray Bassett might want to think about that.  And he might also want to think about the fate of Ulster, the six counties that stayed “loyal” all the time, for a century now, never giving an inch and never surrendering in the certainty of its Britishness.  Indeed, the DUP, just a few short years ago drew praise from some very senior Brexiteers for its adherence to supposedly true British values.  Yes, we all love flattery, and the Unionists loved it all the more when it came from Union Jack waving charlatans.  So, would the rest of Ireland be rewarded for changing sides and following suit?  I doubt it. Relying on English good will, especially the goodwill of those currently in the ascendant,  would be asking for trouble.  For all the grandiose, overblown talk of the Unionists’ patriotism to Britain, when it came to their turn to be chucked under a bus, they discovered they were no more valued by the Tory right than anyone else

I’m not quite sure of Bassett’s mindset.  While apparently strongly nationalistic, he undoubtedly has a soft spot for the Anglophone world.  Indeed his obvious affection for this block and its people, possibly born out of his direct diplomatic experience and his three ambassadorships, all to British Commonwealth countries, almost prompts a suspicion that deep down, a part of him would like to see Ireland rejoin the UK.    Yet this man is no “West-Brit”.  There is no way that he aspires to being “an Anglo-Irish gentleman” as Fintan O’Toole describes Charles Haughey’s social ambitions.  The man reeks of solid Dublin, flat-voweled and unpretentious.  Maybe all his comfort zones are simply tied up in the Anglophone world.

To pick up on another view, I contacted someone who used to work in Irish foreign affairs: indeed Ray Bassett was his one time boss, not that they ever met.   He responded to Bassett’s point that questioning EU membership risks your career in the Irish diplomatic service.  This he disputed while acknowledging that membership was indeed central to government policy, adding that Ireland would no more leave the EU than leave the UN.   It’s important to belong to something, I suppose.  Ironically, one of Bassett’s criticisms is that Ireland belongs to so few blocks, even within the EU, citing how various countries make alliances within and without, based on remnants of empire, shared culture, shared language or physical location or a combination of all of them.  Ireland, he says, is the odd man out, its lack of block membership drawing comment from many quarters.   My contact rejected Bassett’s allegation of craven Irish acceptance of every rule and diktat from Brussels.  On the contrary, he stated, there are constant court disputes between Dublin and Brussels over one issue or another.

Bassett is a man out of time.  Essentially he belongs to another age, another time, another attitude, another mindset.   The country has changed totally since when he was a young man.  There is a new mood.  This is a very different time.  If he wants to shift the Irish people on this one, he has a mountain to move.  Recent polls indicate over 90% support for the EU, climbing even higher with young people, up to 97% in the Dublin area.  Emotionally, at least, Ireland has pulled out of England’s orbit, slowly but gradually increasing the distance with the passage of time.  It has become, quite simply, a different place.



I don’t want this review to end on a 97% comfort note; the book disturbed me badly, remember.  While Bassett is maybe a man out of time, he does highlight some worrying fault lines in the EU, such as MEP’s inability to initiate legislation, the lack of democratic accountability and the lack of transparency.  Maybe there are established ways to address these concerns, but they are certainly not common knowledge.   Every true believer in the European ideal should read this book and then address Bassett’s very legitimate concerns.  No, this is not about leaving the EU, but about agitating for change within.   If we don’t undertake this exercise, if we don’t make the organisation more responsive to its peoples’ real needs and concerns, we just might end up seeing something that once looked so bright, welcoming and futuristic to our uncritical eyes, as the soured invitation of Mary Howitt’s classic poem of 1829 “Will you walk into my parlour, said the spider to the fly”.


Ireland and the EU Post Brexit  r.3 review by Stephen Kearney © December 2021

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