Ireland has done well out of the EC. It finds UK 'wriggling' puzzling, says Peter Wilsher.
Iveagh House, on St. Stephen's Green in the heart of Dublin, was handed over to the nation by the Guinness family in the 1930s, and is now the elegantly marbled home of Ireland's Department for Foreign Affairs.
Each autumn the foreign minister, including the current incumbent, Gerry Collins, is happy to throw open the superb ballroom there to launch the country's annual search for its European of the Year. Next month the 1991 winner will be announced at another star-spangled ceremony, and a new name will be added to the list which already includes the prime minister, Charles Haughey, the former Brussels commissioner, Peter Sutherland, and the long-distance cyclist Sean Kelly, who so impressively outpaced the Continent's best in the gruelling Tour de France.
Even without the tense distractions of Maastricht, it is fairly difficult to imagine a similar ceremony taking place in London. The foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, with his patrician distaste for Brussels' meddling in the 'nooks and corners' of British life, is an unlikely host for anything calculated to popularise and publicise our cross-Channel commitment, and certainly no leading politician, except perhaps Edward Heath, has seen much mileage through claiming excessive Euro-zeal. Our commissioners, from Roy Jenkins to Sir Leon Brittan, have rarely been acclaimed as national heroes. And even such internationally-recognised talents as Kevin Keegan (or perhaps in some future year, Paul Gascoigne) might think twice about the way such a doubtful distinction would be viewed from the xenophobic terraces of Lancashire and East London.
The Irish Republic, by contrast, seems able to take its European involvements both more lightly and more seriously. While its small boys compete eagerly for the right to play (and shine) in the European Subbuteo League, its officials crisply affirm that 'unlike Britain we have no objections in principle to moving to full economic and monetary union'. Headscratching speeches and leading articles find Westminster's perpetual 'wriggling' almost incomprehensible.
Ireland, in fact, has done rather well out of its Community membership, and knows it. Thanks largely to its burgeoning links with Germany, which now accounts for 13% of its exports, it is still running a substantial and so far recession-resistant trade surplus, and it has no intention whatever of excluding itself from its most important markets.
Of course, there are always problems, and the biggest at the moment are provided by the most important Irishman currently in Brussels, the agricultural commissioner, Ray MacSharry, (who is not likely to win the European of the Year nomination). His proposals for reforming the Common Agricultural Policy, widely dismissed elsewhere as too modest by half, have roused his home farmers to incandescent fury. As they never tire of pointing out, the food industry in Ireland is twice as important to the economy as the EC average, and in the two most contentious areas, dairying and beef production, the disproportions are respectively seven-fold and twelve-fold.
But though they reckon the MacSharry measures could cost them £280 million a year, and cut the value of agricultural production by 20%, it is noticeable that their anger remains well within civilised bounds - no sign of the French hysteria which litters country roads with dead lambs and burned-out lorries.
Also they recognise, however reluctantly, that the worst of the CAP nonsenses have to be non-sustainable, even in the land of the leprechaun. Everyone knows about the two large cargo vessels, stuffed with unwanted butter, which have been moored for months in Cork harbour, and there was a general sigh of relief when someone found a way of selling it off cheap to Boris Yeltsin's Russians.
Meanwhile attention turns to another interesting Cork development in the same general area, where a Dutch bank is trying through the courts to get back £5.8 million it loaned against butter which, it now seems, may never have actually existed.
Like Spain, Portugal and Greece, Ireland's biggest concern with the present moves towards political and economic unity is that Europe's richer partners can be persuaded to give them a bigger injection of regional development funds. The hope is that the £3 billion allocated for 1989-1994 can be doubled over the next five-year period.
Meanwhile, though, any contributions come in handy, and Brussels money is helping to develop enterprises as diverse as marinas on the Shannon and the Genealogical Centre at Crossmolian in County Mayo (which will happily trace the ancestry of whoever emerges as European of the Year).
Any significant changes in the EC's constitutional framework will, by law, have to be ratified by a referendum among the Irish voters. But, in the light of the general climate of opinion, few doubt that the answer will be anything but 'yes'.
Peter Wilsher is Assistant Editor of the Sunday Express.