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How the EU brought about ‘rapid and profound’ social change in Ireland

Academics, lobbyists and positive change advocates speak to Rita de Brún about the EU’s impact on societal change in Ireland

In considering the impact of the European Union on social change in Ireland, it helps to remember Ireland as it was, immediately before our accession in January 1973.

1972 was the year when Muhammad Ali – he who could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee – boxed at Croke Park. The year when Pelé kicked for delighted crowds at Dalymount Park. The year of Bloody Sunday.

Socially, this was a time when Bartley Dunne’s was one of the few gathering places in Ireland where LGBT+ people would meet. A public house for sure, but also a sacred, if secret-shadowed place. So much so, that it was also a popular meeting place for heterosexuals conducting clandestine affairs. These were dark times when it wasn’t safe to come out.

Asked about the positive impact of EU membership on LGBT+ rights in Ireland, Brian Finnegan, ILGA-Europe’s director of communications, says “it’s difficult to quantify”. Then referencing the gains made by David Norris (without whom homosexuality might still be a crime in this country) and Lydia Foy (the trans woman who fought and won so much for gender recognition), he points out that their cases were brought to the European Court of Human Rights, (ECHR) which is not part of the EU.


Of the Norris and Foy victories he says: “The seeds for these, along with the 2015 constitutional recognition of same-sex marriage, were planted when Ireland acceded to the EU.” This, he says, showed that Irish core values were aligned with those of the EU in terms of dignity, equality and freedom.

“This is not to say that Ireland is an LGBT utopia,” he continues. “We may have gender recognition but access to healthcare for trans people remains woefully lacking.”

Although there are shortcomings, we’ve gained much from our EU membership. Imelda Maher, Sutherland European law professor at UCD, puts it this way: “The single market has transformed our lives: from what we eat to where we work, holiday and study.”

Describing the EU’s impact on Irish social policy, Liam Herrick, executive director at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) says: “It was slow at first, through the 1970s and ‘80s, but rapid and profound in more recent decades.”

He says the development of EU equality law alongside decisions from the ECHR has had an enormous effect in advancing both minority and women’s rights. “It is difficult to overstate how increased travel and study on the continent and participation in the EU institutions has shifted the mindset of Irish policymakers and lawyers away from the Anglo-American frame of reference that was dominant before accession.”

Since 1973, lockdowns aside, travelling freely to and living in other member states has become a normality. ‘Freely’ is an accurate description here. But it describes only part of the journeying, resettling and returning that has become commonplace. The increased affordability of travel is also key, and for this – eco-consequences aside – Ryanair played its part.

Dr Laura Bambrick believes that women workers, “particularly married women”, have been the biggest beneficiaries of our EU membership. As head of social policy and employment affairs at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions she is well versed on the topic.

She says that before Ireland joined the EU it was standard for a woman to be paid a lower rate of pay than a man doing the same work and she lost her job if she married. “Her PRSI record was closed and she had no entitlement to social welfare. Her husband was now her insurance against hardship. If she continued working after marrying, she was only hired on temporary contracts. She could be sacked for being pregnant and had no right to return to her job after maternity leave.”

Dr Margaret Fine-Davis of the department of sociology at Trinity College Dublin, and author of Women and Work in Ireland: A Half-Century of Attitude and Policy Change, says Ireland joining the EU gave additional impetus to the changes already in train. These include “the removal of the marriage bar, married women’s increasing labour-force participation and the beginning of pressure for change in contraception. It did this through EU directives on equal pay [1975] and equal employment opportunity [1977].”

EU membership exposed Ireland to new models and ways of thinking, says Dr Fine-Davis, “notably from the Scandinavian countries but also the French childcare system”.

“Our married female labour force participation rose from 7 per cent in 1971 to over 50 per cent in the following decades,” she says “and our total fertility rate went from four children per woman to two. But our childcare infrastructure failed to adapt to these changes and it is only in recent years that it is beginning to catch up at an increasing pace.”

Noting that “EU employment equality law ended all this,” Dr Bambrick says: “Irish women workers continue today to win rights from the EU. Improved family and carers’ leave, flexible working and the living wage introduced by the Government in 2022 all originate from EU legislation.”

Women remaining active in the labour force and the availability of contraception brought a tendency towards smaller family units. In the year we joined the EU, only 3.15 per cent of registered births were outside of marriage. In the first quarter of 2022, 43.6 per cent were outside marriage/civil partnership.

Higher-education enrolment in this country has exploded in the five decades, growing from 27,000 in 1973 to 246,299 in 2021, thanks in part to EU support through the European Social Fund. Also, Erasmus+ programmes have resulted in many students finding their freedom and their feet studying abroad.

EU membership is bringing positive changes, but more are needed and fast. Poverty and social exclusion are still very much with us. EU research shows that in 2021, 21.7 per cent of the EU population was at risk of both. That figure was 29.7 per cent for those aged 16 and over with a disability, compared with 18.8 per cent for those without.

According to Pavee Point, the suicide rate among Traveller men and women is, respectively, seven and five times that of the general population.

While EU membership has brought social gains on many fronts, it has also brought obligations. Liam Herrick of the ICCL puts it this way: “As a stable liberal democracy, Ireland should now take on a greater leadership role within the EU, in standing up for democratic values and the rule of law at a time when many members are moving in the direction of authoritarianism.”

Asked about her EU hopes for the future, Prof Maher says: “Post-Covid, we now have the five-year EU recovery plan, NextGenEU, which shows a different path from the sometimes vicious austerities of the fiscal crisis. My hope is that this vast fund is spent wisely in line with the EU values that we share and of which we must remain vigilant in these uncertain times: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.”