Keynote address at the Inaugural Michael Sweetman Memorial Lecture

26th March, 2014

Michael Sweetman was a man I did not know, with a legacy that I know intimately.

A man tragically killed aged just 36 – younger than I am now. And losing his life in 1972 – before I was born.

Some of you here this evening, assembled in his honour, knew him and loved him. So, I speak to you with some anxiety, anxious to do the man, the husband, the father and the friend justice in this inaugural lecture in his name.

I particularly want to recognize, Barbara, who shared 15 years with Michael, and as his children, Michele, Caroline, Patrick, Christopher, Rachel and Timothy.

Your names were in my mind as I wrote this speech, and now some of your faces are in my sight as I deliver it.

I hope I can do your memories of him justice. I will do my best to do so.
Others here will know of his legacy, for you I want to emphasise how important his contribution was and the relevance of his beliefs today to our modern challenges and opportunities.

A Broader Audience

But there is a broader audience, not here this evening, who need to be aware of Michael Sweetman and his legacy. So my contribution will briefly summarise a man, a life and a legacy – all of which are too vital to be allowed to fade into the weave of national and personal history.

I am not part of his private legacy – this honour is reserved for friends and family. But there is a public legacy. The nature of such legacies was well documented by John Maynard Keynes in 1935 when he wrote:

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else….I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”

Three Themes

I will explore this encroachment of ideas through three themes:

· By explaining my interest in Michael Sweetman and a consequent genuine honour in delivering this inaugural lecture.
· Through summarising a life and his achievements, to do all I can to ensure that both are understood by the audience beyond this room.
· By looking at the core elements of his vision for Ireland and Europe and to test their relevance against the passing of over forty years.

My interest in Michael has three dimensions:  

First, I strongly believe that membership of the European Union reset Irish political horizons and was the vital factor in our economic development. However, there was nothing inevitable or effortless about our applications and eventual successful membership.

I have long been fascinated by the history of this period and by the advocates of membership, all of whom went against the grain of a then static political culture. My study of this period introduced me to the contribution of Michael; an interest heightened by the publication of
‘The Widest Circle’, a collection of essays edited by Barbara.

Second, I am proud to be a member of Fine Gael for over 20 years. My family was never involved in any form of politics; I joined Fine Gael by choice. The history of our Party, the breadth of our church and my identification with the liberal strand of Fine Gael are the reasons I joined.

‘The Just Society’
movement was a crucial contribution to the development of our Party and my pride in it. The pivotal role of Michael in this period was also a source of long-term personal interest.  
Finally, it was my own constituency, then called Dublin North West, now Dublin Central, in which Michael ran in the General Election of 1969. It was in Phibsborough and Cabra, where I live and went to school, that he spoke of the need for social reform. I am literally walking in his foot-steps.

The European Movement of Ireland has honoured his life through the operation of the Michael Sweetman Trust. I mentioned my interest in his life to my colleague Noelle O’Connor, the Executive Director of EMI. I was then privileged to receive an invitation to deliver this inaugural lecture by Barbara.

A life of interests

Recognising a broader audience, I will briefly sketch out his footsteps through his family, interests and career.

Michael was the eldest of six children, born in June 1935 near Kells in County Meath. According to his brother David, he was a master strategist with tin model soldiers. He began his studies at Glenstal and graduated with a degree in history from University College Dublin.

As a young man his breadth of interests was remarkable. His contemporaries have described his love of food, wine and classical music. As a university student he sold wine, leading to the set up of a small wholesale company called ‘Rare Wines’.

Michael met Barbara, a fellow student, they married in 1957 and began their life together in Canada.

After their return to Ireland Michael was appointed as Director of Information of the Federation of Irish Industries. He  was subsequently appointed Director of Business Policy.

European Movement and Fine Gael

This career was fused with a deep commitment to the cause of Europe. With his friend Denis Corboy he became involved with the European Youth Campaign. This EYC was the youth branch of the European Movement and Michael vigorously participated in their many meetings and assemblies.

His other great voluntary commitment was to Fine Gael. Through his membership of the then Central Branch he became deeply involved in the development and communication of policy. An early example of this involvement was his contribution to the 1966 Presidential campaign of Tom O’Higgins.

His other important achievement in Fine Gael was his contribution to the Just Society Movement. Speaking in Phibsborough in 1969, where I live, he summed up the movement as focused on:

“Two basic principles – freedom and equality. Freedom today means giving to every citizen the fullest opportunity to participate in government in the shaping of his own life. Equality means a just sharing of the community’s increasing prosperity between all citizens.”

Standing for the Dáil

Such convictions drove him to stand for the Dáil in 1969. This was the constituency of his close colleague, Declan Costello, who had announced his retirement. With a first preference vote of 2,180 he was the second strongest performer of the four Fine Gael candidates but was unsuccessful and eliminated after the seventh count.

Many Interests

Through these roles he made important contributions in many subjects. However his passionate support for Irish participation in European political and economic integration was constant. His contribution was pivotal to the successful EU accession referendum in 1972.

Much of this was achieved in his role as Director of the Irish Council of the European Movement. It is to the rationale for this support that I now turn.

‘Why Ireland Should Join’

His views were well summarised in his pamphlet ‘
Why Ireland Should Join‘ published in 1972.

A central theme of his work is the case against an expansive and generous patriotism, one which encouraged “
men to believe that those who happened to live within the boundaries of their particular nation state were superior to all others.” This, he believed, was dangerous.

Michael contends that Ireland should join the European Economic Community, the EEC, for two specific reasons.

Sovereignty and Jobs

First, that it means ‘
more power for Ireland, not less’. He understands the difference between nominal sovereignty and actual sovereignty.

The difference between a country residing in splendid isolation with many policy options theoretically available but few practically achievable, and a country wielding influence through negotiation and compromise.

He concludes that, ‘
sovereignty means nothing without power to influence our own destiny…Because within the EEC our influence will be increased, we increase our sovereignty, rather than diminish it’.

Second, that it will deliver ‘more jobs, better living’. For Irish industry, it opened up access to a wider market and the delivery of a level playing field through the role of the European Commission.

For the Irish consumer, it opened up competition and broader choice. For Irish agriculture, it provided the opportunity to sell Irish produce at sustainable and profitable price levels, ‘
for the first time virtually since the State was established, the Irish farmer will have an opportunity of increasing his production with an assurance of stable prices and guaranteed outlets’.

Michael Sweetman understood that many of the challenges facing nation states would require the sharing of sovereignty, as many opportunities and difficulties were too big for any country to grasp on their own.

He also understood that this process had unique strategic benefits for Ireland as it provided the opportunity for a resetting of Anglo-Irish relations. This, in turn, would create new paradigms for North-South collaboration.

This was well summarised in the 1969 Fine Gael front bench policy statement on Northern Ireland when Michael wrote that, ‘n
ow that membership of the European Community is bringing us into a more balanced relationship with Britain, we can more easily afford to recognise the British strand in our heritage without fearing any compromise of our national integrity. We should by now have gained sufficient self confidence to put aside the extreme attitudes of past conflicts’.

So Michael believed that Europe would broaden Irish horizons, economically, politically and bilaterally with our largest and closest neighbour. Each of these hopes was vindicated.

Economic Horizons

Economically – we are now the second most globalised economy in the world. When Michael was advocating EEC membership our economy was one of the most closed in the world. Our average income was 60% of that which was being attained in Europe. Despite recent difficulties, it is now 25% greater.

Our income was also heavily dependent on that of the UK, with our currency pegged to sterling. Last year, Ireland sold over €180 billion of goods and services to our trading partners.
This was across a wide variety of sectors to a wide variety of trading partners. The realisation of Michael’s aspirations for Irish agriculture has played a vital role in this success.

Political Horizons

Politically, Ireland has strenuously pursued EU membership to deepen our political engagement and influence. Despite all of the challenges of the EU it has provided the best platform for advancing our national interest. Central to our membership are our tenures of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. We have now completed our seventh.

These Presidencies, and our continuous engagement at all levels of the EU – from Parliament to Commission – has delivered the effective flourishing of our national sovereignty in a range of policy areas, from development policy, to the digital market and most recently to the design of banking union.

Anglo-Irish Horizons

At the wider table of the EU, Ireland and the United Kingdom, sit together as equals. This relationship is underpinned by policy agreements across many areas, most notably the development of the Single Market.

The Union has enabled an extraordinary and historic transformation. The visit of Queen Elizabeth and the approaching visit of President Higgins are vivid examples of this change.

This has deepened the determination of both Governments in their joint quest to bring stability and peace to Northern Ireland. Between 1989 and 1993 alone, the European Union invested £600 million to support economic revitalisation. Under the recent Irish Presidency significant investment in Northern Ireland was an important priority.

As Michael predicted, Union membership provided a greater canvass of political concepts to support progress in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday ‘three strands’ model with multilevel political institutions within the region, has its intellectual roots within European political integration. The concept of devolution also has a uniquely European dimension.

His predictions with respect to our economic, political and peace prospects were fulfilled by the passage of over 40 years of Union membership.

Having evaluated the past through the prism of Michael’s thoughts, I now want to look at the journey ahead and how his principles might be of help in securing our future.

Some Golden Rules

Brigid Laffan observed that Michael ‘
would have found it inconceivable that Ireland could have thrown away economic prosperity through reckless domestic policies and a weakness of regulation. It would have been unimaginable to him that a rich Ireland would have needed a bailout from the EU and IMF’.

As we work to move from ‘bail-outs’ to stability and recovery we must continually challenge, and evaluate, the European dimensions of our economic policy. Much of this will now occur through our participation in the European economic semester process and our participation in the Fiscal Governance Treaty.

It is now clear that Ireland joined a currency union but not an economic union, which does not yet exist. That is why progress in areas such as banking union, strengthening the Single Market and the creating of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) is so important.

However scrutiny of the varying strengths of these unions should not weaken our evaluation of Irish participation in them. I believe three important lessons are relevant to current debates on our social and economic future.

First – that each country must raise enough taxes to pay for the public services that they want. Vitally, these revenues must be part of an ongoing and stable tax base.

Second – that national economic growth models must be diverse and sustainable. No ‘boom’ in any section of an economy can substitute for a loss of national competitiveness.

Third – that when either of these golden rules are broken, countries have no good or easy choices left. Sooner or later, economic gravity asserts itself.

The European Union – A Contemporary Rationale

Whether Michael would have agreed with these observations or not might be a subject of discussion for later in the evening. What is clear to me is that he clearly understood the nature and role of competitive markets.

This is evident from his analysis of the potential impact of the Single Market on Irish agriculture and industry. His commitment to social justice is also beyond doubt.

His analysis of the prospects for European and Irish society would be immensely valuable. As we work to sustain a budding recovery we should not assume that the old model is capable of delivering new results.

Globalisation and the resumption of some growth, of themselves, will not automatically fix our many problems or help grasp our many opportunities.

This is the space within which the European Union can serve European citizens. By structuring national interdependence through the application of laws and values.

This is the new contemporary rationale for the Union. This, I believe, would be understood by Michael and, I hope, would be championed by him.

Thank You