The following first appeared on the Substack ‘Creeve Rua’ and is syndicated with the permission of the author.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Ireland’s entry into the European Union, or as it was called then, the European Economic Community (EEC). As the institution increasingly resembles a sort of secular Papacy for the country’s technocratic clergy of journalists and academics, this has naturally led to a slurry of puff-piece retrospectives about what an unequivocal boon it has been for us all.
Fintan O’Toole wrote a piece claiming we are now more ‘equal’ and ‘independent’ with the continent and Britain since joining the EU (the state of the fisheries industry may disagree here). For Jack Power of the Irish Examiner, the past 50 years have meant ‘we are living in a real Golden Age’.
And RTÉ celebrated the EU’s role in our transformation from principles of sovereignty in global affairs, as well as agrarianism, to today’s International Liberalism. That article closed off by begging the question ‘I’d love to have an opportunity to talk to the people who had those concerns 50 years ago to see what they think of this journey that we’ve been on, because on balance, it has been very positive.’
This article is an attempt in part to answer that call with the case study of the Family in Ireland under the EU. Critics of accession at the time had many concerns and predictions, but the notion from figures like Desmond Fennell and Tom Barry that Europe was a threat to the cultural integrity of traditional Ireland is most important for the focus here. As Ferriter reports about critics of the wider Liberalising process underway in the country:
‘The intellectuals on the Catholic right claimed that those looking to liberalise the laws were attempting to turn the Republic back into a mere province of the UK.’
They felt joining Europe would destroy Traditional Ireland – with the family and farm at its core – and replace it with an International Liberal province. This is the story of how that happened.
Before detailing how the EU fundamentally changed society it’s worth noting what the country was like prior to our entry. Starting with De Valera’s protectionism, but even surviving up to the 1960s – through TK Whitaker and Lemass’ reforms – the country’s economy was based around the ‘breadwinner’ farmer model. The majority of men worked in agriculture and were generally awarded a family wage to support their dependent housewife and 3 or more children.
There were ups and downs – and often the rhetoric of supporting ‘the bold peasantry’ never amounted to policy – but it was a resilient society. There were strong ideals that kept the country intact, mainly based around family and agricultural subsistence. Trade unions, the church and communities writ large supported each other to form a symbiotic process. While most were poor, by European standards, all knew their place. Families and communities stuck together. People had autonomy and social solidarity insured a certain base level of social justice – in the workplace and the home.
Mainstream historian Joe Lee described this corporatist vision surprisingly well:
‘De Valera’s model emphasised the essential links between the generations as he identified his ideal for the dependent ages in society – childhood, youth and old age. Giving was as important as receiving, service as important as wealth. It was a society in which rights were balanced by responsibilities, in which adults of materially productive years acknowledged non-material obligations both to those who came before and to those whom were coming after, the generations woven together into a seamless social fabric.’
The early 1970s challenged this worldview with the global energy crisis following the Saudis cutting off oil to the West after its support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War. This context gave neoliberals the precept for their argument in favour of joining the EEC.
Despite our 50 year history of stability through global crises, they argued slavishly following Britain and Europe was our only hope for maintaining independence in the unstable global world.
Of course, added to this was the promise of financial goodies if we – the sick man of Europe – acquiesced to their demands.
Paddy the Pickpocket & the CAP
When Ireland joined the EEC on the 1st of January of 1973, the fundamental appeal were the handouts promised to farmers through the Common Agricultural Policy. Certainly, there have been obvious benefits to farming modernisation and to the country’s export scheme, but in the grand picture the CAP has essentially resembled a buying off of the farming community, as Ferriter reports:
‘The Common Agricultural Policy ensured an increase in the output and incomes of one third of Irish farmers, or, as a more cynical assessment would have it: ‘the Irish farmers did not get into the EEC agricultural market – they got into intervention’. This belief was enhanced by the £7.2 billion received in structural funds between 1994 to 1999, while there was always deep consternation about reform of the CAP, which initially encouraged over-production and guaranteed price regardless of output.’
While the populace was promised a radical step forward in economic independence by liberals like Garret Fitzgerald, the entry into the EEC was marked by a tremendous reliance on subsidies and cash injections from our new financial overlords. This essentially resembled the country begging on the continental stage for consecutive hits of international welfare payments. The respected historian Joe Lee referred to this as the ‘begging bowl approach’, which further promoted the image of Ireland as ‘Paddy the amiable pickpocket’ — unable to confidently solve our domestic problems, always looking for external reliance.
We had replaced a nation of self-sustaining Breadwinner Men who worked for their dependent women and children with an entire state of effeminate dependents.
The general impact of this deal was the end of widespread small farms dominating Irish life, as Kennedy reports: ‘Following Irish entry into the EEC in 1973, Irish agriculture was transformed as aid was directed in favour of larger farms and larger producers. The number of farmers continued to decline while the average size of holdings increased.’ From the majority of workers working in agriculture in 1926, to about 25% in the early 70s to about 10% in 1996 — there is a clear trajectory of abandonment of our socio-political foundations.
The ideal of self-sufficient small farmers backed by Church and worker’s rights to a family wage had been shattered. Most small farmers left the profession and were pushed to work in the new urbanite jobs.
This is where the country shifted, thanks to the EEC, to a modern Blairite ‘service economy’ which focuses less on production and more on technology, communication and other ambiguously useful jobs. From this alone a social revolution began to occur, with masses of working families having to find new jobs outside of the ‘cosy’ farm system. But despite this, the people was still overwhelmingly traditional in their cultural choices and persuasions, as evinced not only by the popularity of the 8th Amendment Campaign but also by the rate of women’s participation in the workforce: ‘From sixty years from 1926 to 1986 there was scarcely any change in the number of women in the labour force — 32 per cent in 1926 compared with 31 per cent in 1986.’
For the country to complete the progressive transformation, a rigid implementation of EU law was required to back up the radical economic shift.
Europe’s Equality Directives
In a sense our internalised effeminacy in the global economy – and our fazing out of the agricultural breadwinner – naturally lead to the domestic feminisation of our legal and political structure. Through EU mandated ‘Equality Directives’ the breadwinner model enshrined in the constitution was hacked away at. Starting with the end of the marriage bar in the civil service in 1973, preceded by the Anti-Discrimination (Pay) Act of 1974 and the Employment Equality Act of 1977, the EU-based legal changes encouraged businesses to hire more non-unionised housewives.
The transition was overwhelming: ‘Membership of the EEC hastened the emergence of a different model of family life, one based on equality legislation … so that dual earner households increasingly became the norm.’
While these were passed on the premise of guaranteeing workplace equality for both sexes, they politically normalised the mass-wagiefication of married mothers.
No longer would single-earning households stay afloat on a socially expected family wage. Instead, married mothers were required to enter the workforce to keep up with rising prices and stagnating wages, as well as rising unemployment. As Kennedy puts it, this was a move away from a ‘social security system based on the family’, and quotes Meenan in full to illustrate the point:
‘Moreover, the farm constituted a constant occupation for the members of the family who remained on it … Matters are very different when an increasing part of the labour force works for direct monetary reward, outside the social structure of the family. In a cash economy, much greater attention must be paid to problems such as provisions for old age and sickness, assistance to widows, the health and education of the young … It is essential to understand that an economic revolution entails a social revolution (Meenan, 1970: 281-2).’
And naturally following the law of supply, big businesses welcomed the inflow of cheap competition for jobs.
One of the most significant legal redefinitions came in 1985 with the Social Welfare Act by the Fine Gael government of Garret Fitzgerald. In this case the government obeyed the 1979 Equality Directive of the European Community which asserted a spouse is considered a ‘dependent’ only if they are wholly or mainly maintained by the other party. What this in effect meant was that for social welfare purposes mothers were no longer considered dependent on their husband – de facto due to their being mothers. The state and wider legal system no longer had to pay homage to the notion that married mothers should be supported in the nurturing of their children.
Thanks to Neoliberals, the EEC and women’s liberation groups, married mothers had achieved legal and social ‘equality’ with working male wagies – meaning they were equally expected to toil away in the corporate office.
Despite the rhetorical opposition Fianna Fáil provided for the wagiesation of women in the 1980s, by the Celtic Tiger and Bertie’s government new heights were reached in the economic assault on the family. While rising house prices and urbanisation worsened family solidity, the tax reforms of Minister for Finance Charles McCreevy were its death knell. Beginning in the 2000 Budget and finalised in the 2002 tax programme, McCreevy explicitly adopted tax individualisation, making it so that single-income couples (where the children would be nurtured at home) would have to pay the higher tax rate at £28,000, while two-income households could have income up to £56,000 before being hit by the higher tax rate.
Kennedy notes how ‘The individualisation proposals were seen as a reward to women in the workforce vis-á-vis women in the home.’ and continues, describing the public backlash:
‘Public reaction to the individualisation plan was dramatic. The letter columns of the newspapers were filled and the airways were jammed with objectors composed of a coalition of women in the workforce and in the home…In Budget 2001, MrCreevy continued on the individualisation route.’
It is important to remember instances like this when liberals assert that women’s liberation into the workforce was simply a triumphant social movement. The average person’s understanding of the breakdown of the traditional family is based around the Regime’s myth that masses of women rose up in rejection of hearth and childrearing in favour of the office cubicle — but this is patently untrue. Historically, the majority of men and women desired stable and healthy families, it was successive Neoliberal governments, backed by the EU, which actively enforced an economic system which deincentivized the traditional family.
The Family in post-EU Ireland
Now that Ireland has thoroughly internalised the EU’s Neoliberal process, we can see what has become of the family. Fitzgerald’s ‘constitutional crusade’ of divorce and contraception, to today’s gay marriage and abortion are obvious changes which bear little relitigating. What is worth detailing is how over the course of the EEC / EU era, the statistics bear out the obliteration of our breadwinning Traditional country.
For starters, births outside marriage skyrocketed from 2% in 1921 to 28% in 1998 to today almost half of total births – 39%.
In many ways this collapse of the traditional structure of home life is a natural consequence of the successive governments following the agenda of the EU. The first step was buying off Farming with lucrative subsidies, squeezing out the small farmer into urbanite service jobs or unemployment — creating economic uncertainty at home. Naturally then, women were dragged out to work also, leading to the dual-earning service economy we have today, where it is increasingly difficult to start, let alone raise, families due to housing prices, inflation and the disincentives in the tax system. A healthy, family-based society is unlikely to survive under the rule of the EU’s Neoliberalism.
Of course, considering how much the country’s attitude to the family has changed over the past 50 years, there’s little reason to believe things couldn’t reverse course in a few decades from now. But thanks to the destruction of the agricultural economy – that most people worked in – and the ‘Equality’ enforcement of the EU, the Irish family has withered away from what it once was.
Ferriter, Diarmaid. 2004. The Transformation of Ireland, 1900-2000. London: Profile.
Kennedy, Finola and Institute of Public Administration (Dublin, Ireland). 2001. Cottage to Crèche: Family Change in Ireland. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.