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Membership of the European Communities: Implications for Ireland


From the Documents Laid Collection, DL021475

In the aftermath of the Second World War, there was an effort by Western European nations to foster co-operation and unity throughout Europe. In order to achieve this ideal, a number of communities were set up in the years following the war. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was founded in 1951, followed by the establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC) six years later. The EEC was set up under the Treaty of Rome which was signed on the 25th of March by France, Italy, Belgium, West Germany, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. Eurotom, which sought to encourage co-operation on nuclear power, was also formed under this treaty. These three branches later merged in 1968 to form the European Communities.

In 1959, Fianna Fail’s Sean Lemass became Taoiseach, and, from the outset, he crusaded for Irish membership of the EEC, believing that it would provide a significant boost to the Irish economy. Ireland first application to join the EEC was submitted in 1961, along with applications from Britain, Denmark and Norway. Doubts were raised over the viability of Ireland’s membership of the European Communities, with concerns that its economy was not sufficiently developed to withstand the potential impact of free trade and competition resulting from EEC membership, and with questions regarding whether Ireland could join if Britain, its main trading partner, did not. There were also concerns regarding Ireland’s neutrality throughout the war, and its non-membership of NATO. In 1962, Lemass addressed these concerns directly in a speech to the European Commission and visited the capitals of the six founding states in order to assure them that the issues raised would not be an obstacle to Irish membership. The EEC Council of Ministers agreed to discuss Ireland’s entry to the EEC in 1962. However, priority was given to Britain and Denmark’s application and Irish negotiations would not begin until the following year.

On the 14th of January 1963, Britain’s application was vetoed by the French President General De Gaulle and all four applications were suspended. Ireland continued to push for membership of the EEC, with Lemass working towards removing trade barriers and improving Ireland’s economy up until his resignation in November 1966, at which point he was succeeded by his Minister for Finance Jack Lynch. On the 11th of May 1967, Britain made a second application to join the EEC, with Ireland’s application following closely behind. However, Britain was again was blocked by President De Gaulle, and, on the 19th of December, Ireland was informed that their application was also rejected.

De Gaulle resigned in April 1969, was succeeded by George Pompidou who was more receptive to the accession of Britain and Ireland to the EEC. The June 1969 Irish general election saw Patrick Hillary appointed as Minister for External Affairs, following which he carried out a series of ministerial visits to the European Commission and to the six capitals in order to assure them that Ireland was ready to undertake the political and economic obligations of membership. To support this, a white paper entitled Membership of the European Communities – Implications for Ireland (pictured above) was published in April 1970, outlining the potential effects that acceding to the European Communities could have on Ireland in terms of financial implications, impact on agriculture, fisheries, and industry, movement throughout member states, tax provisions and economic policy, amongst other things. On the 18th of January 1972, the final negotiations took place, and four days later the Treaty of Accession was signed, permitting Irish membership within the European Communities.

Joining the European Communities required a change to Bunreacht na hÉireann, therefore, a referendum was required. The referendum proposed the insertion of a new Article, which stated:

The State may become a member of the European Coal and Steel Community (established by Treaty signed at Paris on the 18th day of April, 1951), the European Economic Community (established by Treaty signed at Rome on the 25th day of March, 1957) and the European Atomic Energy Community (established by Treaty signed at Rome on the 25th day of March, 1957). No provision of this Constitution invalidates laws enacted, acts done or measures adopted by the State necessitated by the obligations of membership of the Communities or prevents laws enacted, acts done or measures adopted by the Communities, or institutions thereof, from having the force of law in the State”.

The Fianna Fáil government and Fine Gael main opposition united for the purposes of encouraging a Yes vote. However, the Labour party and Sinn Féin were suspicious of the European Communities and the potential impact membership could have on Irish independence, and so, they campaigned for a rejection of the treaty. The referendum was held on the 10th of May, 1972, and resulted in an overwhelming vote for Ireland to join the European Communities, with between 70%-80% of the electorate voting Yes.

The Treaty of Accession came into force on the 1st of January 1973, with Ireland, Britain and Denmark formally joining the European Communities on this day.



Irish Political Maps – Referendum 1972: Accession to the European Communities

Irish Election Literature – Referendum 1972

European Commission – Ireland in the EU: Joining the European Community

EU2013 –Ireland’s entry into the EEC

Irish Statute Book – Third Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1972



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