I thank the Chairman and the distinguished members of the committee for the opportunity to address them this morning.
A Chathaoirligh agus baill an choiste, is mór dom a bheith libh agus táim an-bhuíoch as an gcuireadh teacht chun cainte libh inniu ar ábhar fíorthábhachtach dúinne i nGluaiseacht na hEorpa in Éirinn agus daoibh mar choiste, gan amhras. It is a great privilege to discuss the findings of the latest European Movement Ireland's opinion poll entitled Ireland and the EU 2021. I will also briefly make reference to the Conference on the Future of Europe.
As the distinguished members of the committee will no doubt be aware, since 2013 the European Movement Ireland has carried out annual, independent polling on Ireland's relationship with the European Union. Our efforts to track and analyse this sentiment is unique and, I hope, valuable. The regularity with which we carry out this polling, analysis and exercise allows us to not only capture a snapshot in time but present changes and trends that occur.
Bearing the usual caveats about opinion polls in mind, I will highlight a few points from the results that the distinguished members might find interesting. To start with our regular question on support for Ireland's continued membership of the EU remains strong at 84%. Support was highest in the youngest and oldest age cohorts at 87% and 93%, respectively.
We see a reluctance to give up control over certain areas of national competence. Only 35% of people favour giving the EU more control over healthcare policy if that meant losing control at a national level, while fewer than a third of people or 29% would support more political or economic integration if it meant losing control over key economic policies such as tax. However, the younger cohort and demographic are more supportive of EU health competences, and further economic and political integration. It is encouraging to see that more than three quarters of people or 77% believe that EU funding to member states should be linked to rule of law principles.
Interestingly, fewer than a third of respondents or 32% believe that there will be a united Ireland in the EU in the next ten years. That figure is broadly similar to the question we polled in 2020. This is somewhat surprising given the increased scrutiny in this area since last year's poll.
On the future of the EU and Europe, 52% agree that now is the time to hold a Conference on the Future of Europe, and to reform the EU even if this would result in a referendum in Ireland. There will be more on that later.
It might be useful to members to highlight some trends, themes and suggest some associated insights arising thereof. The key finding of 84% agreeing that Ireland should remain part of the EU remains encouraging, and is consistent since we started polling. However, the finding that 53% believe that the EU is moving in the right direction suggests that strong support for EU membership in Ireland cannot be taken for granted.
We were not entirely surprised by the numbers having confidence in the EU vaccine strategy. A useful reference point to consider in this particular question is that in 2020 we asked respondents if the EU had dealt well with the Covid-19 pandemic and found that sentiment was pretty evenly split between 47% who agreed and 46% who disagreed.
We have included questions on defence co-operation in several years. Since 2017, we have asked if Ireland should be part of increased defence and security co-operation. While the numbers agreeing with that have remained relatively consistent, with 54% this year and ranging between 49% and 59% over the period in question, the numbers disagreeing have declined steadily from 40% in 2017 to 27% in 2021.
I draw the attention of members to the fact that in reply to several questions, those in the 35 to 54 age cohorts were less positively disposed than those in other demographic groupings. It is difficult to arrive at certain and definitive conclusions regarding the reasons for this. However, we need to pay attention to what seems to be a somewhat disconnected and disenchanted middle.
Broadly, these numbers tell us that while Irish people remain positively disposed towards the EU, support is not unequivocal and should not be taken for granted. Furthermore, it cannot be conflated with unquestioning support for further integration, particularly related to areas that have traditionally been associated with strong member state competencies. Those of us who support Ireland’s place in Europe should be encouraged by these findings while recognising that it will take commitment, effort and engagement to maintain support for EU membership in Ireland.
We only have to look to our nearest neighbour or, a little further afield, to some of our neighbours in eastern Europe to see how quickly things can change and the consequences that arise. In a world that is changing fast, old certainties are becoming new uncertainties. The Covid pandemic has had a significant impact on economy and society but the EU will be central to our collective recovery and its future legitimacy and public support depend greatly on how it responds to these many challenges. Ireland’s position as an active, engaged and progressive member state will be central to that effort but that position can only be maintained with the support of the Irish people and that support must be earned and trust maintained through action and engagement.
I will make some brief remarks on the Conference on the Future of Europe. European Movement Ireland was delighted to partner with the Government on the official national launch of the conference by the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Thomas Byrne, last Friday in Iveagh House. When addressing the committee last November, I outlined our view that the Conference on the Future of Europe should deal with substantive issues affecting the EU and should be citizen-led. We see this process as a significant opportunity for citizens to contribute to the future shape of the EU. However, we must remain determined and diligent to ensure it is a truly bottom-up exercise that genuinely engages citizens and delivers tangible outcomes. In that regard, we are very pleased to be working and partnering with the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Government on engaging citizens on these issues on the island of Ireland as well as the diaspora overseas. As members will know, European Movement Ireland has a long history of engaging citizens on European issues and Ireland is considered to have a long and distinguished track record in engaging citizens more broadly on issues such as those debated at the Citizens' Assembly. Ireland is seen as an example of best practice in terms of how we go about engaging citizens and I hope that, through the Conference on the Future of Europe, we can continue that strong tradition. We are currently in the process of finalising plans in that regard - the conference was only launched on Europe Day, 9 May, in Strasbourg - but our aim and goal is to meet and engage with as broad, diverse and representative a cross-section of people as possible, including those in Ireland and EU citizens in Northern Ireland and beyond. We will start doing this in the virtual world first, through online consultations that will begin in a couple of weeks and go on into next year.
I am very grateful for the committee's previous engagement on this issue and the excellent report arising from that which was an extremely beneficial and important contribution to the process. I offer my congratulations in that regard. I would be delighted to return to speak to the committee about our progress in more detail at a later date when we are more up and running. Míle buíochas, a Chathaoirligh, agus baill an choiste. Ba mhór agam an deis labhairt libh inniu.