A case now before the Irish High Court has delayed implementation of one of the most significant moves toward European unity in 30 years. The Republic of Ireland is the only one of the 12 members of the European Community (EC) that has failed to meet the Jan. 1 deadline to ratify the Single European Act. The affair is an embarrassment to the government and has provoked irritation among the other EC nations.
The Single European Act is itself a product of a lagging EC timetable and a compromise between enthusiastic integrationists - who want a federal Western Europe on the United States model - and governments who want to safeguard national interests. According to earlier timetables, measures as radical as those provided by the act should have been implemented as long ago as 1980.
Its main provisions fall into two categories, trade and politics, which aim at what is called ``completing the internal market'' by 1992. This means complete freedom of trade, movement of persons, supply of services, practice of profession, and transfer of capital within the 12 EC nations. It also aims to spur research and technological development to enable European industry to compete more effectively with the US and Japan.
Secondly, it provides for total political cooperation among the member states. It substitutes a system of qualified majority voting in the deliberation of European ministers for the current system, in which any EC member can veto any decision if it believes that its vital national interests are threatened.
There are some public misgivings here on the question of closer political cooperation. Ireland, as the only member of the community that is not also a member of NATO, cherishes its ``neutrality,'' and many people here want an assurance that Ireland's participation in EC political cooperation will not cross the fine line into involvement in military matters.
The Irish government failed to bring the measure forward for parliamentary ratification until close to the deadline at the end of 1986. Now some leading diplomats from the larger community nations say privately - but angrily - that the Irish government should have acted by the middle of 1986; they ascribed the delay to incompetance.
When the measure was finally ratified in Parliament, it was further delayed by the High Court case, brought by a private citizen on the grounds that the measure infringes the Irish Constitution by depriving Irish institutions - including the courts themselves - of their independence and subjecting them to the rulings of EC institutions.
Government lawyers, for their part, argue that the act makes no essential change in the situation that has prevailed since Ireland joined EC in 1973.
Further delay is now expected. The speculation in legal circles is that the High Court will not hand down a judgment before the middle of February. Then it is virtually certain that the losing side will appeal to the Supreme Court, so that the eventual judgment could come at any time between March and June.
If the courts, contrary to expectations, ruled against the government, Ireland would be threatened with explusion from EC and loss of the benefits of membership. Ireland, one of the poorer member states and one of the most dependent of agriculture, is a major beneficiary from EC agricultural, regional, and social policies.