It's less than a week before the polls open for the most important democratic decision the UK has taken in generations, a decision with consequences that will reverberate far beyond Thursday's enfranchised. I've not been an innocent bystander during this referendum, harangued on a street corner by a ruffian European debate while minding my own business. I worked on the recent documentary series Paxman In Brussels: Who Really Rules Us? as Assistant Producer. For the programme I talked to the most devout of European insiders and the most outspoken and eloquent of Eurosceptic MEPs, willing the delivery of their own P45. I met lovely people who made myriad valid points that belied the nasty racist and aloof elitist caricatures of either side. It caused me to think long and hard about my own default ideas of the EU, and gave me lots of new food for thought.
But when it came to my own personal decision on how to vote in the referendum the choice was crystal clear - I'm for Remain. My reason for so doing was simple: home.
As I write this, I'm returning to my native Donegal, on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, for a few days. I'm able to make the trip relatively cheaply thanks to European legislation breaking down airline monopolies and liberalising the market. I'm flying into Derry, an airport that received millions in grant aid from the European Regional Development Fund. I'll see the EU-funded Peace Bridge in the distance, a monument that has opened up a once bitterly divided city, and serves as vital a metaphorical purpose as a practical one. I'll be travelling back home on roads, north and south of the border, that benefitted from European structural funding. And living so close to that border, I've not much of a mind to see the UK and Ireland's long-held Common Travel Area clash with the concept of a brand new EU land frontier in a fight to the death. When I'm home I'll drive past the fruits of countless community and youth projects, school building extensions, farms and small businesses, all of whom have benefitted enormously from EU funding and initiatives. I'll meet with friends of mine, young people I met as a youth worker on projects that simply would not have been happened without European support, who were enriched by the opportunity, who got to meet people and learn things they otherwise wouldn't have. I've even worked in Brussels, and met lots of friends but not one single evil bureaucrat. Plenty of people see the EU as distant and dangerous, and I often understand why that is. But for me, its benefits are close and personal.
Not just individual either, but national. Sovereignty has been central in this debate, whether genuinely, or as an audacious fig leaf for wanton xenophobia (One woman on Question Time complained Britain was being "diluted", like the island was a bottle of Ribena). Leave advocates say "Take Control" so much I'm convinced they've a bet on to see who among them can say it the most times in a single interview, like the England football team's wager to shoehorn song titles into soundbites. Prior to joining the EEC, Ireland had this much coveted control. It was hard-fought, lamentably through the old school method of much bloodshed, and not with newfangled comedy flotillas. Ireland had no master on the world stage, standing as the kind of nation idealised by some on the Leave side now. We were truly sovereign. And it was dreadful.
Ireland's early days of independence were ones of patriotically mandated insularity economically and religiously endorsed insularity socially. Our biggest exports were busloads to Euston Station and boatloads to Ellis Island. It was particularly bad if you were a non-Catholic or a woman in the workplace, despite us having very few of either. A non-Catholic working woman didn't stand a (heathen Protestant) prayer. Every economic sector but agriculture was comically under-developed, although given the success of Angela's Ashes and Brooklyn, perhaps our cadre of patrician policy makers of the mid-20th century simply had a very immersive, very long-term strategy to help the Irish film industry.
It was only really when Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973 did we develop any semblance of modernity. As a committee of the Dail (Ireland's parliament) put it in 1984: "Irish women have the Community to thank for the removal of the marriage bar in employment, the introduction of maternity leave, greater opportunities to train in a skilled trade, protection against dismissal on pregnancy, the disappearance of advertisements specifying the sex of an applicant for a job and greater equality in the social welfare code". Ireland as a nation might have been a free state before the EEC, but a lot of its citizens weren't. Taking Back Control is an attractive idea, as long as you're comfortable with the people who'll end up wielding it on your behalf.
Ireland is also the perfect example of how the sublimation of narrow national interest for the greater good, the sort the EU has always encouraged, can benefit citizens on the most fundamental of issues. For years, the political status of Northern Ireland was the fuel of discord, crisis and murder. Ireland and the UK were locked in a stalemate over macho claims of sovereignty that were at fatal variance. It was only in 1998 when Ireland resolved to change Articles 2 & 3 of its Constitution (a long-untenable claim that essentially stated "Northern Ireland is totally ours, the Brits are only keeping it warm til they're ready to move in with us and we find space for them") and the UK shifted away from its aversion to "Joint Authority" that enduring peace was forged. Queen's University Belfast academic Dr Lee McGowan recently asserted "The Good Friday agreement was predicated on both Ireland and the United Kingdom being members of the European Union". The role the EU played there was low-key but crucial, and that is the EU I've always recognised.
Of course, only the thirstiest of Kool-Aid drinkers would suggest the EU is perfect: its responses to the economic and refugee crises, for example, have often been vacillating and ignoble, and it's just as prone to The Thick Of It antics as any national parliament. But all the more reason to stay in and affect the change you want to see: if voters were bolder in their choices at general elections, they'd see the change for their better in the European Council immediately. If more than one in three showed up for European elections, they'd see it in the Parliament too. As for the idea the Commission is undemocratic: if anyone in Britain has ever elected a Whitehall civil servant in an open public vote, or cast a ballot for who should be Home Secretary, I'll buy you a beer. A nice Belgian one, like Leffe or something.
Students in Ireland are currently wrapping up the Leaving Cert, our A-Level equivalent. They're part of a demographic fated as being the most pro-EU, a group who live half their lives on devices which render borders meaningless, who have an intrinsic sense of belonging to an interconnected world, who benefit most from roaming charges no longer costing an arm and a leg. Those students may see striking resemblances between Nigel Farage's rhetoric and the work of a poet they had to study, Robert Frost's 'Mending Wall', specifically the line "Good Fences Make Good Neighbours". Those students know, from their own sense of self as much from analysing the poem, that the opposite is true.
One of the great shames of this referendum (and god knows there have been several) was that much more attention was spent on the dangers of leaving rather than the virtues of remaining. My parents' generation grew up at a time when the world was the town they grew up and opportunities were few. A time when the Mediterranean was mostly run by dictators or juntas, and Eastern Europe was cordoned off by the Iron Curtain. I've grown up in a democratic European Union that for all it's imperfections has provided me enormous chances and broadened my horizons. It's easy to fall into a trap of thinking progress is inexorable. It's not. It requires all our effort, and we owe it to our next generations to Remain in a peaceful, prosperous Europe they can keep making better.
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