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Ireland forces through Lisbon vote

Ed Walsh of the Irish Socialist Network on the recent vote on the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland.

Any hopes that Ireland – the only European country whose people were allowed to vote on the Lisbon Treaty – would throw a spanner in the works a second time were dashed by the unequivocal vote in favour of Lisbon on October 2nd. The large “No” margin of 2008 (54% - 46%) was reversed dramatically as the treaty was endorsed by 67% of voters. Not only did the handful of affluent constituencies to register a “Yes” vote last year turn out in even bigger numbers to support Lisbon (the “Yes” side exceeding 80% in some areas), but the working-class areas that voted “No” by a crushing majority in the first referendum transferred their loyalties to the “Yes” camp, along with the bulk of rural Ireland (one such area, Dublin North Went, lurched from 64% “No” to 55% “Yes”). Some opponents of the Treaty joked that it was now a one-all draw between the two sides and there should be a third referendum play-off to settle the tie. But everyone recognised that Lisbon would no longer have to clear its Irish hurdle before passing into law.

Why the drastic reversal of fortunes? The two referenda were held barely a year apart. In the immediate aftermath of the “No” vote in 2008, many establishment commentators warned that it might be even harder to pass the Treaty second time around, since the electorate would not take kindly to being told it made the wrong decision and would have to try again. People in the “Yes” camp have suggested various reasons for the turnaround: people understood Lisbon better this time; the “Yes” campaign was more professional and effective; the “guarantees” obtained by the Irish government set minds at rest about issues like neutrality, taxation and abortion. Whatever role these factors may have played, they can’t have been as important as one crucial change since early 2008. As Shane Coleman of the Sunday Tribune wrote before the referendum:

“If these were normal economic times, it would be difficult to be optimistic about the Yes campaign’s chances. However, these are far from normal times. The Yes side will prevail next weekend because of that.”

Economic Meltdown

When the Irish people voted on Lisbon the first time, the economic climate was looking more uncertain than at any time since the Celtic Tiger first began to purr, but nobody expected the traumatic meltdown of the past year. Ireland would probably have faced a recession this year even without the negative stimulus of the global financial crisis, as the over-heated property market went bust and dragged down the construction industry, which has been the main source of new employment in the last few years. When these domestic frailties were combined with the corrosive effect of the credit crunch, you had a recipe for full-scale collapse. The Irish unemployment rate jumped to 12.5% by August 2009, the share prices of the main banks tumbled to a fraction of their main value and billions of Euro of public money have been poured into the black hole of the financial system by a government that makes Gordon Brown look assured and competent in the face of trouble. To compound the panic, Dell has just moved its biggest European factory from Limerick to Poland, sparking fears of a mass exodus of foreign capital to low-wage countries further east. It’s fair to say that the national mood is a combination of anger, confusion and fear – mostly fear.

What does this have to do with the Lisbon Treaty? In theory, nothing. Voters were not being asked “do you think there should be a recession?” or “would you like there to be more jobs in the country?” But the “Yes” camp understood that it could exploit the economic crisis to its advantage. Posters supporting the Treaty carried slogans like “Yes to Jobs” and “Yes to Recovery”. The thinking behind those slogans was not always stated explicitly, yet it was clear enough to most people. This is not the time to be rocking the boat. We already have enough uncertainties to worry about. If Ireland votes “No” again, it will only make things worse for us.

Rotten System

Underpinning these arguments, there was an alarming prospect that nobody in the political establishment likes to talk about in public. Most readers will probably have heard the joke “what’s the difference between Ireland and Iceland?” (“one letter and about six months”). If you’re an Irish citizen, it’s hard to smile: we still don’t know how deep the bottom of this crisis will prove to be. The Irish banking system has shown itself to be rotten through and through: the final cost of the bail-out will certainly exceed tens of billions of Euro yet there’s no guarantee that it will work and make economic recovery possible. There’s a very real danger that Ireland could find itself unable to borrow money on the international markets and forced to look for assistance from outside bodies. In practice, that would mean a choice between other EU states and the International Monetary Fund, which has already sunk its teeth into Iceland and some East European states. Given the track record of the IMF, most Irish people would rather have another option if the worst comes to the worst.

In that situation, many fear that another “No” vote would be counted against Ireland by its EU partners. Nicolas Sarkozy has long forgotten the fact that his own people voted against the same document in 2005 (when it was called the EU Constitution), and the same amnesia could be expected from other European leaders who would blame the “ungrateful” Irish for the trouble they’ve had getting the Treaty passed. In which case, Brussels might tell the Irish government to direct its appeals to IMF headquarters in Washington. There’s no guarantee that things would happen this way, of course: the rest of the EU might consider it prudent to bail out the Irish economy and shore up the Eurozone, setting aside any bitterness about the Lisbon Treaty. Yet you can hardly blame people for imaging the worse and deciding to err on the side of caution, given the depth of the crisis. In a roundabout way, the “Yes” majority is a resounding vote of no confidence in the present government – a lot of people who backed the Treaty this time must have little faith in the ability of Brian Cowen and his ministers to avoid national bankruptcy, after the gross incompetence and corruption revealed over the past year.

That’s not the only economic concern that played a part in the outcome. For the first time, individual corporations joined the “Yes” side in the referendum, with Intel and Ryanair playing an especially prominent role. Ryanair’s yobbish CEO Michael O’Leary toured the country batting for Lisbon (with the EU transport commissioner hitching a lift in O’Leary’s private plane – how’s that for a conflict of interests?) while Intel took out full-page ads in national newspapers. Intel’s Irish boss warned that foreign companies would be less likely to invest in Ireland if there was a second “No” vote. Given the dependence of the Irish economy on FDI, this threat was likely to weigh heavily on the minds of voters.

Political Campaign

Without the economic context, it’s unlikely that the greater competence of the “Yes” side would have been enough to secure victory. They were certainly better organised this time around. To complement the efforts of the major political parties (Sinn Fein were the only party with seats in parliament to oppose Lisbon), a number of “Astroturf” campaigning fronts were set up with names like Ireland for Europe and Generation YES. All of these groups had over-lapping memberships and appeared to share the same sources of funding, yet a sympathetic media didn’t ask any of the searching questions that would have been obligatory for similar organisations on the “No” side, opting instead to give generous coverage to their message of support for the Treaty (Ireland for Europe alone spent over 500,000 Euro on its campaign).

The political parties themselves put up a better show for their second campaign. They had irritated everyone in 2008 by using their posters to promote little-known election candidates. The three main parties (Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour) kept their eye on the immediate task for the second referendum, spending over one million Euro between them to secure a “Yes” vote. They also benefited from a nakedly partisan ruling by the body which regulates commercial broadcasters, relieving TV and radio stations of the obligation to provide equal airtime for both sides in the referendum. The regulator didn’t bother to hide the fact that this ruling was intended to strengthen the “Yes” camp (Generation YES issued a comically dishonest statement, claiming that the regulator’s decision would allow a broader range of voices to contribute to the debate).

Sinn Fein

Against this powerful coalition of forces, the “No” side was weaker than it had been last year. Sinn Fein was the biggest political party opposing the Treaty, yet it didn’t throw its full weight into the campaign. SF sources told the media that the party coffers were depleted and it needed to keep some cash in reserve in case it needs to fight a snap general election over the next few months. There were also rumours that the northern leadership of the party had wanted Sinn Fein to claim credit for the “guarantees” negotiated by the Irish government and align itself with the “Yes” camp. You’d want to take everything you read in the Dublin media about Sinn Fein with a pinch of salt, but if there is any fire behind this smoke, it doesn’t say much for the political wisdom of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness – Sinn Fein support is below 10% in the opinion polls, yet the “No” section of the electorate topped 30% despite everything, so the party should really be looking to consolidate its support among those voters instead of rushing (not for the first time) to prove its respectability and place itself on the crowded middle ground of Irish politics.

Radical Left

The radical left had to make its own calculation about time and expenditure, with a long winter of industrial discontent in prospect (a member of the left-republican group Eirigi told me that his comrades had little money left over for Lisbon posters after printing off leaflets in support of striking Dublin port workers). The biggest radical groups, the Socialist Party and the People Before Profit Alliance, recycled much of their material from last year’s campaign, with the SP also receiving some financial support from the United Left group in the Euro-parliament now that its best-known figure Joe Higgins has become an MEP. Higgins acquitted himself well in the media as a spokesman for the “No” side and even supporters of the Treaty admired his dignified response to the outcome: the Kerry Trotskyist urged people who voted “Yes” to take photos of the posters promising economic recovery and demand to know where the jobs are the next time establishment politicians come knocking on doors.

Right-Wing No Campaign

The “No” camp also included two right-wing groups, Libertas and Coir. Libertas was set up by Declan Ganley, an unpleasant conservative businessman who was given a big platform by the media during the first referendum campaign in preference to more progressive and honourable figures on the “No” side. He subsequently tried to launch Libertas as a political party which contested this year’s European elections on an ultra-conservative / Eurosceptic platform (its founding charter gave Libertas a mandate to provide financial support to businesses facing strike action). Ganley himself ran for a seat in the west of Ireland and polled reasonably well without emerging victorious, while the Libertas candidate in Dublin crashed and burned delightfully in spite of her massive campaigning budget. The Libertas chief had promised to bow out of politics after his European efforts proved fruitless; he didn’t stick to that pledge, but he was a much diminished figure in the second campaign.

That left Coir, an even more reactionary group with roots in anti-abortion campaigning which appears to derive its funding from right-wing fundamentalist sources in the USA. Coir has a knack for designing eye-catching posters and spent more than any other group on the “No” side. It opted for Fox News-style hysterical scaremongering: one poster carried the text “Trust EU assurances? Not on their lives” alongside pictures of a foetus and an elderly woman. The suggestion that EU bureaucrats are drawing up death lists in Brussels as we speak didn’t seem to have much impact on public opinion: that particular brand of reactionary Catholicism has probably had its day, although Coir will certainly do their best to sabotage any attempt to repeal Ireland’s ban on abortion.

Next Steps

So what happens next? The EU establishment got a lucky break this time. Lisbon will almost certainly go into effect over the next few months once the last obstacles are cleared out of the way and the construction of a trans-national state with a military capacity and founded on neo-liberal economics will be one step further along the line. Planners in Brussels are no doubt already thinking about how they can continue the project without triggering another Irish referendum (a court ruling in the 1980s obliges Irish governments to hold a vote every time a new treaty is adopted by the EU). They would be right to worry: in the article already quoted, Shane Coleman warned that a “Yes” vote “might only be a blip in the shift of the balance of power to the ‘No to Europe’ side”.

Left-wing opponents of the EU project will also need to draw some lessons from the Irish experience, and the earlier experience of countries like France and the Netherlands. Even the most resounding “No” vote will not stop that project in its tracks as long as national political elites remain committed to it. Ways will simply be found to duck around the latest obstacle. In order to clear the way for a different kind of Europe based on socialist values, the radical left will have to challenge the stranglehold of conservative forces at national level. EU referenda can be a useful opportunity to put across left-wing arguments to a wide audience and undermine the legitimacy of the political establishment, but there is a long battle ahead of us that will have to be fought in other fields.