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Dublin Report by John Kelly: In new Europe, Ireland blends into the bland

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Síle de Valera, speaking in the U.S., the country where her grandfather was born, certainly ruffled a few sensitive feathers recently when she seized the opportunity of the launch of a new book on the American Irish to vent her feelings on the new Europe.

Her speech has opened a new debate on the direction the European Union is taking. It also brings into question the nature of the relationship Ireland enjoys with the union and with the U.S.

As Ireland turns its face more towards a spreading Europe, keen to reap the benefits of an ever-growing market, it would be a huge mistake if it turned its back to the U.S.

Luckily, it has not done so yet.

This tiny island on the western fringe of the continent is now one of the leading havens of high tech industry in the European Union. Most of the companies that have invested here, eager to reap the advantages presented by well educated, with it young people, are U.S based. They regard Ireland as it should be seen, the ideal gateway to Europe.

The EU is continuing to grow at a rapid pace. The new currency, the euro, may have hit the floor but the market still expands, especially towards the East. This growing market that is rapidly taking on the shape of a major world power is not quite what its founding fathers would have envisaged.

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Síle de Valera, minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, is quite right to voice some serious reservations about the direction it is going.

Ironically, especially when the UK seems to persist in adopting a curmudgeon approach to the EU. One of the earliest prophets of a new, peaceful Europe was none other than the arch-imperialist, Winston Churchill. Like other founding fathers, he envisaged a continent where rival national nations and ideologists would bury their difference in a vast, mutually beneficial market.

But they certainly did not anticipate a gargantuan common culture that would succeed only as it buried the diversity that had once made it so unique. They did not conceive the spread of a mass culture that would bury all differences in a push towards closer integration.

While Síle de Valera was perfectly right to draw serious attention towards this trend towards bland harmonization, she seems to have conveniently ignored the fact that it is already happening.

But the most important influence of all is not some vague concept of a unified Europe. It is culture that now dominates most of the western world, as American as apple pie or a McDonald’s burger with pickle on the side.

It is not only some Irish who are unhappy with this. Some weeks ago, a French cheese producer was jailed after bombing a McDonald’s burger joint in reprisal for a U.S. trade ban on his cheese.

It was not just a matter of trade. The French are particularly proud of their culture and their language. They fight continually to avoid being mired in what they see as a threatening global Anglo-American model. Síle de Valera may not be as much concerned with this as she seems to be. Within a short time, the future shape of the EU will be discussed at great length. It is now becoming immediately apparent that it could double its present size. It is moving ever eastwards, swallowing up the former countries that combined in the USSR and even parts of former Russia.

The forthcoming changes are likely to be finalized at a major meeting in Nice as early as December. Even as it expands, some leading members of the EU, especially Germany, are keen to deepen integration in all of its forms so that the organization itself, rather than the member countries, will become more politically accountable to all of its citizens.

This will be a major change indeed.

Closer integration brings into focus a new depth of concentration on what we really want to become as a small island in our own right. The Irish government may have to take hard decisions that have not faced any of its predecessors. Finally, it may soon even have to bite the bullet of neutrality, an issue that has been skirted since the end of World War II. It will also have to face other, even more important decisions affecting every aspect of Irish life from early education to cultural imperatives.

Throughout most of Europe, English, just as Winston Churchill forecast, has become the second language. That may be fine for the Irish as far as it goes but, like the UK, we are still miles behind in the languages we can speak. Educational syllabuses have largely ignored the question. Other than language teachers themselves, there are few employed in Irish schools who can speak European languages with any great confidence.

Until quite recently, we have also tended to ignore the Continent as a venue for vacations. Now, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Greece are becoming quite familiar to Irish people. Students have led the vanguard, eager to learn and experience something that is truly different from Ireland.

But, to follow up on some of Síle de Valera’s timely reservations, what unique quality have we to offer the world? The scenery may be exceptional but it is certainly no more so than in many other places.

The people may be different, perhaps a little more friendly than their UK counterparts. But they are not hugely different. The one thing that did make Ireland unique, the Gaelic language, is disappearing as quickly as the tide off a west coast island. The famous film, The Quiet Man, cliched and begorrish as it was, nevertheless faithfully recorded aspects of the Irish character and place that have vanished forever.

So, yes, Síle de Valera is right.

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