Prime Minister of Ireland

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 25 January 1966

I am very grateful to you, Mr President, and to the members of the Bureau of this distinguished Assembly for having invited me to address you today.

As you know, Mr President, this is the first time I have visited Strasbourg and it is the first time that I have addressed this Assembly. I regard it as a great privilege that the opportunity of so doing should fall to me during the period of your distinguished presidency.

As the Prime Minister of a European country whose outlook and way of life have been moulded for fifteen centuries by Christian ideals and the values on which European civilisation rests, it is a proud moment for me to have this opportunity of addressing this Assembly which has been the fountain of so many ideas for closer co-operation between European States with a view to safeguarding their common heritage and economic and social progress.

Through the Council of Europe, of which my country, Ireland, was one the founder Members, the need for a closer unity between countries of our continent has been made manifest. The long list of European conventions and agreements, most of which had their origins in the debates of this Assembly, is eloquent proof of what the Council has initiated and accomplished in the field of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in the fields of culture and education, in the Social Charter, and in the fields of social security and social and medical assistance.

The Council can take pride in the fact that the debates in this Assembly have inspired the creation of other European institutions. These and many other achievements reflect the growing consciousness of the peoples of our eighteen member States of their common European heritage and their desire to become even more closely united than ever before to defend what Mr Edouard Herriot, the then President of the French National Assembly, referred to in his inaugural address to this Assembly on 10th August 1949 as the “two great acquisitions of human civilisation: freedom and law”.

The draft programme of future work for the Council of Europe, which has been drawn up by the Secretary General and which is now being examined by the Governments, shows a promise of further action towards economic and social progress. I should like to take this opportunity of conveying my compliments to the Secretary General and his staff for their efforts in the preparation of this programme. Member States have been given a clear picture of the tasks which are to be undertaken by the Council of Europe. Speaking for the Irish Government, I can assure you that we will, as in the past, collaborate whole-heartedly with the other seventeen member States in the implementation of this programme.

The post-war years in Europe have been marked by an unceasing search for solutions to the problems – political, social and economic – that have confronted our peoples. Some of these problems have their roots in national differences and rivalries; others are more directly the product of the chaos and destruction left in the wake of World War II. The spirit and energy with which the solutions to these problems are being evolved is heartening evidence that the new era we have seen taking shape over the past twenty years is not a false dawn. The desire to end past antagonisms and the conviction that only in unity and amity will Europe find both the good of its peoples and its proper role in the world are deeply rooted and, I am convinced, will prevail against all doubts and difficulties.

There have undeniably been disappointments and initiatives that have lost their impetus, but none of those efforts has been without its value in stimulating and shaping new thinking on European problems. Notwithstanding the setbacks which have been experienced, the record of achievement is impressive and growing. The organisations and institutions that have been established and the results they have been able to achieve are the conspicuous landmarks of progress. In the time scale of history we Europeans have only just begun a new life together.

A notable beginning was made with the establishment of the Organisation of European Co-operation and this Council of Europe, twin sources of much of the thinking which has helped to influence the subsequent shaping of Europe. The habit of co-operation which was engendered and the exchange of ideas which was promoted by these institutions, as I have already said, particularly in this Assembly, led to what has been rightly described as the first decisive act in the building of Europe – the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community. This was followed by other decisive acts: the establishment of the European Economic Community, which embodies the grand design for a united Europe, Euratom and the European Free Trade Association.

We in Ireland have taken a keen sympathetic interest in all these developments. It is hardly necessary for me to recall to this distinguished gathering Ireland’s deep interest in this Continent from the earliest times. European centres of learning bear witness to the contribution of Irish monks during the golden age of Irish monasticism towards the restoration of faith and learning on this Continent. While this is part of our treasured past, we are no less conscious of the needs of the present.

We have participated as founding Members in the establishment of the Council of Europe, the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation and the European Payments Union. We foliowed with the closest attention the efforts made in these organisations to find ways of giving practical effect to the declared aim of European unity. I recall the proposals formulated by the Council of Europe in 1952 for the lowering of tariff barriers in Europe, and also the earlier proposals, with which you, Mr President, were associated, for a substantial reduction in European tariffs. These and other initiatives during the years, by directing attention to the divisive effect of trade barriers, helped to prepare the ground for the establishment of the European Economic Community, and the parallel efforts to find the solutions for the problems which the emergence of that Community was seen to present to other European countries.

We support the OECD decision of July 1956 to study the possibility of creating a European free trade area embracing all EEC member countries and we joined in the subsequent negotiations to that end. I need not dwell on the disappointment, concern and dismay occasioned for us in Ireland when the failure of these negotiations was followed by the subsequent division of Europe into two groups, the European Economic Community and the European Free Trade Association, to neither of which we belonged. These developments, however, were productive of one benefit to us, in that they served to bring home in a vivid way to all sections of our people the relevance to our economic welfare of the movement towards European unity and the preparations we had to make in order to participate in that movement.

That this conviction and understanding extended to the great majority of my countrymen is shown by the almost unanimous support for the Irish Government’s decision in the summer of 1961 to seek membership of the European Economic Community. In my formal statement to the Ministers of the Governments of the member States of that Community in the following January I was able to say without qualification that we shared the ideals which inspired the parties to the Treaty of Rome and that we accepted the aims of the Community as set out in that Treaty, as well as the action proposed to achieve those aims.

In anticipation of the changes which membership of the European Economic Community would bring for our country, energetic measures were introduced to prepare the national economy for the obligations it would have to assume. As a people who had only recently come into control of our own affairs, for whom industrial development was seen to be essential for economic welfare, and who had been actively pursuing a policy directed to bringing this about, entry into a free trade system evoked problems and involved risks which more highly developed countries could face with less concern. We realised, however, that participation in a European free trade system would give us also the prospects of greater and more durable developments in every sphere. For this reason we began energetically with the reorganisation of Irish industry to equip it to meet European competition. A comprehensive survey on a scale never before attempted in our country was made of all aspects of industrial activity in order to identify weaknesses and devise remedies. In all this preparatory work the Government had the fullest co-operation of all branches of the economy.

It was a grave setback to our hopes and plans when consideration of our application for membership of the Community had to be suspended following the Brussels breakdown of January 1963. Nevertheless, I and my colleagues in the Irish Government remained convinced that the situation which had arisen was no more than a temporary interruption, a temporary suspension of progress towards European unity. Speaking in our Parliament in February 1963, I said that the forces making for European unity which received such an impetus after the last world war would, I felt sure, be strengthened as time went on and must in the end prevail. Today, and notwithstanding all the difficulties which have since manifested themselves, I am even more strongly of this opinion.

The strength of our conviction in this respect is shown by the decision that the Irish Government’s second programme for economic expansion, announced in the autumn of 1963 and designed to cover the seven-year period to 1970, should be based on the assumption that Ireland would be a Member of the European Economic Community before 1970. That programme provided for the implementation of a scheme of unilateral tariff reductions on which we had decided in preparation for our entry to EEC and as part of the world-wide movement towards free trade. In pursuance of this programme we have already made two across-the-board reductions of our tariffs, each of 10 per cent.

These and other measures we are taking to prepare our economy for the removal of trade barriers in Europe and they are an indication of our intention and desire to participate fully and at the earliest possible moment in the building of the unity of Western Europe.

Unilateral measures of the kind which we have been taking, while they may have their value, can be rendered much more fruitful if supplemented by improved export opportunities, so necessary to a country circumstanced as Ireland is. I may illustrate the point by saying that an exceptionally high proportion of our gross national product – as much as 25 per cent – is derived from merchandise exports. We live by trade and, with our small home market, the continued expansion of our economy is very largely dependent on our ability to maintain a satisfactory rate of growth in our export trade. The achievement of our objective has in recent years been rendered all the more difficult by our being outside the two trading groups in Western Europe which are expected to complete the removal of internal barriers to trade by 1967.

Our historic past and our present economic links bind us to Europe, and a prime concern of the Irish Government has been to find ways of strengthening these links in the interval before the way is clear for us to join in an enlarged European Community embracing all European countries ready to participate in it.

Our two principal trading partners are Britain and EEC. We could not, in the circumstances which have obtained, develop our links with the Community without serious damage to our special trading relationship with Britain, which accounts for approximately three fifths of our total external trade. It was natural, therefore, that we should concentrate our efforts on improving our trading relations with that country in a way that would be consistent with the eventual participation of both countries in an enlarged European Community. As delegates may be aware, a Free Trade Area Agreement with Britain was signed in London last month which will come into operation on 1st July this year.

This new Agreement with Britain provides for the elimination of protective duties and quantitative restrictions on trade between the two countries – immediately in the case of duties and restrictions applied by Britain, and over a nine-year transitional period in the case of those applied by Ireland.

The negotiation of this Agreement is one of the most important developments ever in our external economic relations. Its conclusion has been facilitated by the high degree of free trade already existing between the two countries, and by the energetic measures we have been taking to prepare the Irish economy for the kind of trading conditions that will be encountered when the opportunity comes to join in an enlarged European Community.

Apart from the immediate trading benefits which it confers, the Agreement is important for us in that it marks a step closer to Europe and so helps dispel much of the uncertainty which in recent years has handicapped us in the taking of fundamental decisions affecting the future course of our economy. We are prepared to consider other possibilities, such as seeking membership of EFTA, to enable U3 to participate in a wider European grouping as a further interim step towards our ultimate objective, which is to form part of an economically integrated Europe. Whether this objective is to be reached either directly by entry into an enlarged European Economic Community or via EFTA, we would hope that the terms of transition would correspond to those of our free trade arrangements with Britain. These terms are designed to afford us a reasonable opportunity of effecting, without undue disturbance to our economy, the changeover to free-trading conditions and thus to prepare ourselves for participation in a single European market.

I think I have said sufficient to reaffirm my country’s sincere attachment to the ideal of European unity and our earnest desire to take a constructive part in future developments in Europe. At the same time, I have endeavoured to give some indication, of the steps we in Ireland have been taking in preparation for our full participation in the new Europe. We believe that the peoples of Europe, with their background of culture and tradition, their community of outlook and spirit and their highly developed skills, have in unison an immense potential for human benefit not alone in Europe but throughout the world. We look forward with confidence to a united Europe – a Europe firmly committed to its own development in peace and harmony and thus the better able to serve the cause of peace in the world and the freeing of all mankind from the scourge of poverty, hunger and disease. (Applause.)