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No! throws the Irish and EU establishment into crisis

Joe Craig

15 June 2008

‘A shock of cataclysmic proportions’ said ‘The Irish Times’ in its editorial, ‘bewilderment’, ‘crisis’, ‘disbelief’ and ‘stunned’ were typical reactions quoted from politicians. It was ‘an unmitigated disaster’ wrote another political hack.  Yet it really had happened – the Irish people had refused to do as their betters had instructed them – they had voted against the Lisbon Treaty!

Opinion polls in January and February, and even just a month ago, put the ‘Yes’ side of the referendum vote in a 2 to 1 lead.  On the eve of the vote the bookie’s Paddy Power paid out €80,000 to those who had wagered on a yes vote, having then to fork out another €100,000 the next day to those who had put their money on No.

But this was not a total shock.  In fact nearly one week before the vote an opinion poll had put the No side in the lead.  This had sent the political class and the establishment into such a fear and panic you could almost touch and feel it.  A campaign that had been criticised for hectoring and bullying did not know now whether to increase the threats of dire, but usually unspecified, consequences of a no vote or tone down the intimidation.  Still, they could not really bring themselves to believe that the almost unanimous view of everyone who matters would be rejected.

On the yes side stood the shiny new Taoiseach and virtually all the Dail parties totalling 158 of the 166 elected TDs.  Also on side stood all the bosses bodies and their associated organisations which had no right to take a position, including state bodies and the chartered accountants.  Also supporting the Yes vote were the Catholic bishops, Irish Farmers Union and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.  The largest union SIPTU asked for collective bargaining rights to be accepted by the government before it would agree to a yes vote but when this was refused it signally failed to endorse a no vote.  In fact it became increasingly clear in its statements that it supported a yes vote but had found itself cut off from being able to publicly state this position.  UNITE and the TEEU were the only major union leaderships to express opposition to the Treaty.  All the major local newspapers supported a yes vote – stridently so – and the EU itself, it was revealed, were holding back contentious announcements to help bolster the yes side.


Yet still the Lisbon Treaty, ironically cobbled together under the Irish Presidency of the EU, was rejected.  The treaty was defeated by 56.4 % to 46.6%, with 862,415 voting against and 752,451 voting for it. The turnout at 53.1% was higher than either of the two Nice referendums (the latter with a 49.47% turnout) when the elites, not getting the result they wanted, called on the electorate to vote again in order to get the Nice Treaty approved.  The higher turnout and gap between the no and yes votes now make this abuse much harder to pull off a second time.  The Labour Party leader, Eamon Gilmore, has already said he would not support such a move but Brian Cowan has deliberately made no such commitment and the president of the EU Commission, José Manuel Barroso revealed that Cowan had told him that the Treaty was not dead.

Much political and media speculation now revolves around what will happen next with various alternatives being put forward.  It is testament to the undemocratic nature of the whole exercise that none of them involves accepting the vote.

In law the treaty has to be ratified by every one of the 27 EU members and 18 have already done so although the Irish State is the only one to allow a referendum on the issue.  In theory then the treaty should be dead in the water but Nicolas Sarkozy has said that the ratification process should go ahead.

At least four other alternatives are possible – renegotiation of the Treaty, which is what prominent no campaigners called for, although this is almost universally ruled out by commentators.  The second is for the rest of the EU countries to move ahead by themselves using Title VII of the EU Treaty, or some other mechanism, but this in itself creates political problems, not least because this is not what has been approved by those countries which have already agreed to Lisbon.  The third is for the Irish State to pass piecemeal changes that don’t need a referendum vote, although again it remains to be seen how far this could really get them.  The final alternative is to cobble together some minor clauses which would allow the Irish State to put the Treaty to the vote again.  While France and the Netherlands rejected the EU constitution in referenda and killed it as a constitution, being reincarnated essentially as before as the Lisbon Treaty, it has been stated by one EU politician that the Irish State is not France.  In other words it is a small country and will have to do as it is told.  At the moment this is being framed in terms of the Irish having to sort out the problem they created themselves.

The vote therefore severely dents the democratic credibility of the EU and if a second vote is called for will have a similar but even greater impact on the legitimacy of the Irish government.  Worse still, there is no guarantee that it would win a second time.  There have been complaints that not only is the turnout higher than the first Nice vote, which was overturned, and the gap between the No and Yes camps larger, but there is no single issue which united the No campaign and on which some real or purely symbolic concession could become the peg to hang a new vote around.  The rejection is therefore a real problem for Irish capitalism and the EU.


The depth of the crisis and the possibility of them doing something about it to reverse their defeat is therefore determined by the character of the opposition, by the character of the no vote.  How coherent and strong is it?  In Socialist Democracy it is this issue that has been at the centre of our concerns.  The No vote is a wonderful rejection of the capitalist plans but what matters is what dynamic it expresses and where it is going or could be organised to go.

Journalists have pointed out that the normal anti-EU vote is around 500,000 or 18-19% but that in this vote it went up to 860,000, adding another 9-10%.  They are claiming that the intervention of the Libertas group was decisive in bringing this total up.  This is the usual market place view of politics where a political product is sold to customers with defined tastes.  It assumes no real or fundamental change in peoples’ views that occur through struggle or campaigning.  On the left it is mirrored by repeated assertions of a vacuum on the left.

In this case it is argued that traditionally pro-EU voters did change but only to back a right wing opposition that made being anti-treaty respectable.  Libertas came from nowhere and appears as a Berlusconi type political vehicle for a very rich capitalist Declan Ganley with a hard right wing, nationalistic, Catholic agenda with personal ties to US neo-cons.  He spent perhaps €1.5m on his campaign, more than all the established Dail parties put together.  He was feted by the media who prefer their opposition to be right rather than left wing and gained attention in an age when TV is still the most powerful communication medium.

On top of this there was the usual extreme right wing Catholics campaigning against the ungodly EU and its wicked plans to import abortion, kidnap children and destroy Catholic Ireland.  Suddenly opinion polls wee quoted showing the Irish to be the second most nationalistic of EU member nations (behind the Brits) with a higher proportion expressing themselves as solely Irish as opposed to some combination of Irish and European.

Another explanation has been the clientelistic character of Irish politics which now expresses a disconnect between people and politicians so that the former have no trust in the latter.  Since the EU is no longer a source of billions of structural and cohesion funds the clientelistic character of Irish politics worked against treaty endorsement.

Undoubtedly suspicion and distrust of politicians played a role, which partly explains the stupidity of politicians using the referendum to put up posters of themselves as if they were enough to persuade a yes vote.  The resignation of Bertie Ahern, after his ‘explanations’ for all the money he got stretched credulity to breaking point, did nothing to win trust in the establishment message which was essentially ‘trust us.’  When he scraped through the bottom of the barrel to claim he got all that sterling by winning on the horses it was another blow to his political comrades in Fianna Fail who had stood by him until he had no option but to quit.

The economy is now in downturn and only technically out of recession with inflation rising, consumer spending falling, unemployment increasing, public finances in deficit and public spending cuts being put in place.  The housing boom is well and truly over and the full effects of the world-wide credit crunch have yet to be felt.  Not a good time to sell globalisation.

Almost one month ago ‘The Irish Times’ had an opinion poll asking a sample of the population how they would vote.  The biggest reason given among those intending to vote no was ‘I don’t know what I’m voting for’ or ‘I don’t understand it.’  They took the view that if you don’t know you vote no.  The yes campaign made much of this ignorance but Brian Cowan admitted he hadn’t read the Treaty and ignorance of what the whole EU project is about is how it has been able to proceed as far as it has, something openly admitted by the former French President Giscard D’ Etsaing. 

A further 18% said they didn’t like being told what to do or being forced to vote yes while 25% said they were voting no to defend Irish neutrality and 18% because Eastern Europe and the big countries had too much power.  Sixteen per cent said they were voting no to defend Ireland’s power and identity, a similar number to help farmers in world trade talks, 12% to defend Ireland’s low corporate taxation and 10% to prevent more immigration.

This opinion poll is probably an accurate enough reflection of the progressive and reactionary impulses behind the no vote.  In class terms it has been noted that the working class overwhelmingly voted no while the middle class voted yes although not so overwhelmingly as in previous referenda.


This range of issues reflects the range of actors in the No camp which not only included the right wing Libertas and Cóir Catholics but also Sinn Fein, pro-neutrality campaigners, some Greens led by Patricia McKenna and the left, much of which argued against the privatisation agenda of the EU.

The Sinn Fein campaign did not represent a striking out to the left of that party but signalled a continuation of its significant move to the right.  Traditionally opposed to the EU it did not miss an opportunity to declare its pro-EU credentials and complain loudly of the Irish State’s loss of a permanent commissioner and reduced voting power in the Council of Ministers.  It also warned of the possible danger to the State’s low corporate tax rate which might be threatened by bigger EU countries opposed to this sort of competition for multinational capital investment.

This fear of a threat to the low taxation of capital was an important theme of the campaign and was a major hobby-horse of the Libertas group.  The referendum campaign was notable for low corporate taxation moving from the foundation of economic policy to becoming an untouchable and unchallengeable holy object of political policy.  In this case the campaign was certainly no move to the left.  There was no left campaign in opposition to it and much of the left has dealt with this issue by ignoring it or claiming that capital will not flee if taxation is increased.

Like Libertas the central message of Sinn Fein was not opposition to the EU per se but a call for the Irish government to renegotiate the Treaty.  Like left calls for trade union leaders to get a better partnership deal there is no real principled opposition involved. The initiative is handed back to the same crooks that gave us the rotten deals in the first place and in Sinn Fein’s case they have already rushed to demonstrate their statesmanlike and responsible credentials by asking to speak to the government on exactly how this renegotiation can proceed.


In this constellation of issues and forces the responsibility of the left has been to bring clarity to progressive opposition; to make it coherent and to strengthen it politically.  Unfortunately most of the left has not agreed with this but has seen its primary duty as one to create as diverse a coalition as possible while believing that the politics behind No is either generally accepted or not really very important.  What matters is voting No and getting the largest No vote.  Even the failure of this strategy in the Nice referendum did not cause pause for thought.

The result of the Lisbon vote will not prove them right.  Sinn Fein are no principled opposition to a re-run referendum and can quite easily go the way of the Greens - from opposing every EU treaty to wholehearted support.  Going running to the government to sort it out is just the first step.  Certainly only the very stupid will entertain any hope in Libertas.  Yet it is this organisation which is speculated will gain by turning itself into a political party, based presumably on hard right neo-con type politics mixed with good old fashioned Catholic nationalism and reactionary social policies.  Whatever short term success it may have there is probably no long term need for it.  It has however been muted that it will seek to internationalise its opposition in the next European elections.

This brings us to the left.  How will it react to this new opportunity?  In France some saw their victory in the French referendum against the EU constitution as an opportunity to create a new left party.  In Ireland the character of the vote is not so clear and not so unambiguously progressive.  It is not therefore simply a question of organising a vote that exists and solving some ‘crisis of representation’.  Even in France the referendum victory was followed by the victory of Sarkozy.  Repeating this French experience requires some explaining for those who think it a good idea.

The No vote is no straight forward victory, but it is a victory.  We should celebrate it.  The plans of the capitalists have received a real set-back and they are clearly struggling to come to terms with it and how to respond.  We not only have a victory.  We also have an opportunity.  Politicians and the media will struggle to make the No a Libertas No, a Sinn Fein No and a No of the purely ignorant.  We have a battle not just against the yes camp, including the trade union bureaucrats whose role we should not forget, but those in the No camp who are no principled opposition to Lisbon or the EU. 

In the coming battle we should aim to deepen the argument.  The machinations to force through a constitution are undemocratic – that’s true. But they have be undemocratic because in any vote the bosses are likely to lose.  They are likely to lose because they represent a full scale attack on public services and on workers rights and there is really no way to disguise this.  The strategy has been to make the issues incomprehensible.  Socialists should do the bosses a favour and spell out in detail what the European programme is and why consistent opposition would mean opposition to a capitalist Europe and a struggle to build a United Socialist States of Europe.  Much of this information already exists, but in the form of obscure booklets rather than the centre of a campaign.

Secondly we have to target our opposition.  That means targeting the working class and rank and file union members.  They voted overwhelmingly against the treaty but were the only group not to have their own independent leadership.  That’s the major issue for workers – facing up to the fact that traditional leaderships are on the other side of the barricade.  This is especially the case with the union bureaucracy.  The fact that they were for Lisbon at a time when the European Court was spelling out in block letters that the workers would have no rights and that the rate of pay would be that which applied in the poorest regions tells all about their betrayal.  The left have to stop cosying up to these reptiles if they are to build a working class alternative.

Thirdly we have to make our opposition concrete.  There is one acute issue immediately in front of us – co-location and mass privatisation in health.  The EU constitution would essentially make these privatisation drives compulsory. Some socialists made this point, but in practice dropped agitation around health in favour of electoral politics.  In any case the left split around their allegiance to the union bureaucrats who are hamstringing the health fight.  A rank and file working class campaign that organised health workers independently would, at a stroke, amplify working-class force a hundredfold.

With opportunity comes danger.  The EU vote is a victory, but it is not our victory. It is not a victory of the working class or of the tiny socialist movement.  If we build the socialist argument, if we build a specifically working-class resistance, then it can become our victory.



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