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Irish voters make a stand

So Ireland has voted the "wrong" way yet again. What can you do with them, those pesky Irish voters who have chosen to bite the hand that once fed them so generously, how exasperating! If it weren't for the European Union (EU), Ireland would still be mired in poverty and unemployment – or so the story goes.

Now God forgive 'em, the ungrateful lot have gone and forgotten all that and voted the Lisbon Treaty into oblivion, alone of all the 27 nations who didn't even get that chance. They did it once before with the Nice Treaty, until after being roundly scolded they were made to go right back into the polling booths and vote again until they got it right, which they duly did. That's not going to happen this time however, partly because it would be just too blatant but mainly because the margin of victory for the No vote at 53.4% for to 46.6% against, was too substantial to question.

It could have been a larger margin however if the issues involved had been clearer and the No campaigners had not involved some of the murkier characters and issues in Irish life and politics. Against the Lisbon agreement were ultra-fervent Catholics and right-wing nationalists. They were terrified about abortion, more foreigners coming to take jobs, compulsory euthanasia, loss of sovereignty and traditional neutrality.

They were joined by smaller left-wing political parties, dissident Republican groups, republican socialists, anarchists and the left of the unions. They raised other issues: fears of even more privatisation of public services, further loss of trade union rights and the forcing down of pay and worsening of conditions that a market in services and increasing liberalisation would entail. They also questioned the consolidation of a move towards the militarisation of the EU, the lessening of national sovereignty and a consequential compromising of Ireland’s neutrality.

A degree of overlap therefore, which for those who see themselves as progressive and liberal in the better sense of the word, muddied the waters a little too much and gave them no choice other than to vote Yes and so distance themselves from the, lost in the past bog-trotters, on the one hand, and the left on the other. So some genuine xenophobia there and plenty of concerns portrayed as xenophobic by the Yes neo-liberals. Even that is not the whole story since the No side was also occupied by some business interests and one or two maverick millionaires, fearful that the low corporate tax enjoyed by investors would be forfeited. The Yes campaign meanwhile involved all the vested interests imaginable, from the bishops, to business people and corporations, the right wing of the trade unions and all the mainstream political parties, including the Greens.

The pro-treaty campaign lost because the political establishment was too complacent, it is claimed, and indeed they did take things for granted. But it was also apparently the broadcast media's “fault” because they gave equal time to both sides, which by law they were forced to do. Balance in reporting all sides of issues - bad. But in the end it was the Irish people who for all sorts of reasons, not all noble it's true, but mostly out of a general wariness of the European bureaucrats and as clear-eyed a reading of the potentially dire effects of this deliberately obscure document allowed, voted it out, albeit on a low turn-out.

The decision of Jose Manuel Barosso, Gordon Brown and other EU leaders? Oh well, what's the electorate got to do with it anyhow? Let's just plough on regardless and ratify. Can't let a little thing like democracy spoil the Euro party, especially something as dangerously populist as a referendum. Fighting for genuine participative democracy is the only way to ensure that we are not steam-rollered into an all powerful supra-EU state, or any other kind of oppressive state or set of institutions for that matter. The vigilance of the Irish electorate in throwing out Lisbon is as a good a starting point as any to launch such a campaign.

Fiona Harrington
16 June 2008

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