Ireland’s historic, economic and demographic ties to the region run deeper than is often realised. It’s time we started paying attention
For many commentators, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has come like a bolt from the blue. This surprise reflects a broader lack of interest in the politics of Central and Eastern Europe. The common blind spot for the region permeates policy circles, as well as the general public in the West.
For many, this is a difficult region to place. Neither part of the developed core of the global economy nor part of a developing world in need of aid and assistance, it escapes easy categorisation. Gaps in collective memory find reflection in lacking research priorities, and Irish universities are no exception. The little funding provided for projects studying the region is typically devoted to understanding Russia, with very few resources devoted to those scholars working on Poland or Ukraine. This neglect is part of a wider problem within the West, but Ireland has more reason to care about the East than other countries.
At first glance, this statement is counterintuitive; Irish history seems far removed from that of Central and Eastern Europe. Yet shared memories run deeper than we often realise. Both Ireland and Europe’s east are post-colonial territories that share in the mythologies created by the anti-imperial struggles of the 19th century.
Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin, famously took inspiration from Hungary’s opposition to Austrian rule in drafting the programme of his new party. Other Irish nationalists looked to Poland’s valiant resistance against Russian domination, which they felt mirrored their own battles against the British Empire. Reversely, popular anti-imperial movements in the Czech lands and Transylvania were so inspired by the drama of the Irish Land War that they adopted the Irish tactic of economic boycotts as a technique of national resistance against the great powers of the day.
Modern links between Ireland and Central and Eastern Europe are less idealistic, yet more durable. We are part of the same political institutions since the eastward expansions of the European Union in 2004 and 2007. Since then, the citizens of the eastern member states have had a voice in crafting EU regulations that affect everyday business life in Ireland.
Democratic backsliding in Poland and especially Hungary therefore affects our shared values and institutions. Conversely, the leadership role Poland and the Baltic states have assumed in assisting Ukraine against Russia’s aggression has left its imprint on the entire Union. Ukraine is unlikely to join the EU within the next years, but in the face of British exit, French balancing and German dithering, the weight of the EU has already shifted eastwards. Irish political interests are therefore well-served by engaging closely with the region, as are its business concerns.
Countries such as Hungary have imitated elements of the Irish model of attracting foreign direct investment. As Ireland’s Industrial Development Agency has repeatedly cautioned, this raises the spectre of the island competing with eastern Europe for footloose multinationals and their funds. But the region’s openness also offers opportunities for Ireland, especially in food industries and outsourcing. These are sectors where Irish firms have built competitive advantages and accordingly, Irish exports to the region are booming. Enterprise Ireland estimates that its clients export 3 per cent of their goods and services to the region, about half as much as they do to Germany, Europe’s largest economy. The level of trade may be modest, but it is not negligible.
Much of this commerce is driven by the movement of people between Ireland and the East. Migrants from Poland, Romania and the Baltics have enriched Ireland’s culture and replenished its labour markets. According to the last census, close to 6 per cent of Irish residents hold a passport issued by a Central or Eastern European country. This constitutes almost 40 per cent of all foreign nationals living in Ireland (including multiple passport holders).
They are now, albeit in very different circumstances, joined by more than 28,000 refugees from Ukraine. How many Ukrainians will make Ireland their home is unknowable at present, but it is nonetheless clear that Eastern Europeans are increasingly contributing their own customs and cultures to Irish society. The multi-layered histories of the region – with all their tragedies and triumphs – will become part of the stories that constitute modern Ireland.
We should listen to these histories and make an effort to understand Europe’s eastern approaches.
This article was first published in the Sunday Business Post on May 13, 2022