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Lisbon Treaty Vote – Which part of NO do you not understand?

Joe Craig

9 August 2008

The appearance two weeks in a column in ‘The Irish Times’ calling on the government to ignore the referendum result and push ratification of Lisbon through the Dail is the clearest example yet of the confusion and panic felt by sections of the Irish establishment after the referendum vote.  The fact that this comes from one of the papers’ most senior columnists and has not been followed by acres of letters protesting against this outrageous and blatant attack on democracy is proof of the papers’ support for what is being proposed.

In part it is pure panic and in part recognition that the proponents of Lisbon have one overwhelming advantage – they utterly dominate politics in the Irish State and this domination is reflected in the Dail.  It also reflects knowledge that the opposition that won the no vote is small and divided both organisationally and politically.

Stephen Collins’ article notes that ‘the real problem is that . . . the Government and other parties that campaigned in favour of a Yes vote simply don’t seem to know what to do.’  The establishment parties are badly divided.  Brian Cowan criticised Fine Gael for not pulling its weight during the campaign but it has now been revealed by advertisers that Fine Gael in all probability spent much, much more on the campaign than Fianna Fail did.

An opinion poll however shows that only Fianna Fail took a majority of its supporters with them in the referendum and even here 42 per cent voted no.  Of Fine Gael supporters 57 per cent voted no and 58 per cent of Labour Party supporters also voted against the Treaty.  This lies behind the rejection by these two opposition parties of the Government’s proposal to set up a special Oireachtas committee to work out what the Yes side should do next.  The call by Collins for Enda Kenny of Fine Gael to take the lead in pushing forward approval of the treaty against the popular vote thus displays incredible stupidity.  It could only happen were Kenny to show comparable stupidity.

Collins’ proposal is based on the assessment that the Yes side could not win a re-run of the vote and this is supported in the same poll.  It recorded that the majority of the electorate are happy with the result of the referendum despite the cries of anguish and bitter invective from parts of the establishment.  Fifty four per cent said they were happy with the result while 34 per cent said they were unhappy with the remainder undecided.  Nine per cent who had voted Yes said that they were now happy with the result.  In a separate poll 57% of Yes voters found the No campaign more convincing!

What sort of No?

None of this however should blind anyone to the fact that the government will still seek a way of reversing the result.  Another opinion poll recorded that most No voters gave Sinn Fein and Libertas the credit for the No vote.  The opposition of the former is weak, to say the least, while the latter is utterly reactionary.  It is of concern for socialists that it is these two who are regarded by many as the voice of the No campaign.  It calls into doubt the claims of most of the left that the No vote was unproblematically a left and progressive one.

In our analysis of the result we argued that the vote was in many ways confused and that its character was still to be defined by a struggle, not so much over what it represented, but what it could be made to represent.  Opinion poll analysis has confirmed our view.  The Socialist party on the other hand has stated that ‘rejection of Lisbon was a definite statement by the working class’ (‘Ireland’s No, in ‘Socialism Today’, Kevin McLoughlin) and the Socialist Workers Party has stated that it was a ‘clear cut message to our rulers’ (‘After the No Vote: What Now? Socialist Worker)

Our analysis is that the No vote was neither clear nor definite.  Despite their confident assertions in both of the articles above the authors note with concern the attempt of the government to define the No vote in order more easily to create the basis for a Yes one.  Why the concern if the vote was so unambiguously a left one which was beyond subversion by the Government?  The concern betrays knowledge that the political character of the No vote was neither so clear nor so definite.

The articles also confirm that our own approach is absolutely correct.  We have no choice over whether to engage in struggle over the character of the No vote because the Government has stated that it has embarked on its own struggle to define it.  It does so, of course, under false pretences – under the banner of trying to ‘understand‘ the No vote – but this is what it is doing.  We have no choice but to fight it.  If at the end of the day No is defined by Sinn Fein it will be defeated by being bought off through worthless ‘concessions’.  If it becomes defined by Libertas it will not be worth fighting for, but will become a movement to be fought against.

In this situation it is not simply enough to seek purely organisational unity, which is what is being proposed, although in fact it looks like what is really on offer is not even this but the sort of electoralist non-aggression pact that has defined left ‘unity’ initiatives in the past.  The Socialist Party has already spurned such moves by putting itself forward for the European elections in an obviously opportunistic attempt to represent and capture No voters.

This electoralist strategy fits neatly into the view that we have witnessed a straight-forward No, where the problem is simply to give a ‘left’ electorate a vehicle to express itself.  What exists is purely a ‘crisis of representation.’  Since the crisis (the problem) is simply one of representation electoralism is obviously the solution.

Unfortunately this is not a new argument.  The ‘solution’ has been attempted before and it failed.

It should now be clear that the No vote was a diffuse and confused one and the primary task is a political struggle over its character, which is the only way leadership of even a section of it could be achieved.  If no problem exists about the nature of the No vote, as most of the left asserts, then obviously no such struggle is necessary and none will take place.

It is necessary therefore to once more present some evidence for our argument.


The first piece of it is rather obvious.  In 2004 we saw a racist referendum passed with a four to one majority.  We have recently seen the Fianna Fail party re-elected despite scandal involving its leader and disastrous policies on public services.  The number of strikes has sunk to record low levels.  Politically the left has been marginal and has declined. Where then could a majority left vote have come from?

An opinion poll has recorded that a majority of No voters credit Sinn Fein and Libertas as the main voices of the No vote.  The former has been in a headlong rush to the right for some time and the latter is so right wing already it would have to target outflanking Adolf Hitler and Attila the Hun to find somewhere further to the right.

While opinion polls should not substitute for political analysis they provide evidence.

An poll carried out by Red C for the ‘Sunday Business Post’ just after the vote found that 40% of the electorate would still vote Fianna fail, 25% Fine Gael and 10% Labour despite a majority voting No.  Nothing indicates that the stranglehold that right wing parties have over the electorate has dramatically or significantly weakened.  Thirty two per cent of those voting No even declared satisfaction with the governments’ performance!

Progressive impulses sat beside decidedly reactionary ones.  Sixty six per cent of voters agreed that limitations should be placed on neutrality so that the state could be more involved in EU defence policy.  Eighty three per cent who voted No said that Ireland had benefited from EU membership in the past and 59% said it will do so in the future.

In the Eurobarometer poll 80% of No voters supported EU membership while 86% of those who didn’t vote also supported membership.  The biggest reason accepted for voting No, at 22% of No voters, was not knowing enough about the Treaty while the next largest category was to protect Irish identity (12%).  At a lower level progressive reasons matched reactionary ones, with 6% agreeing that safeguarding neutrality and not trusting politicians was their main reason and the same percentage agreeing that protection of the tax system and having a full time commissioner was the reason.  The poll did rubbish the claims of Yes campaigners who argued that the No vote was strongly reactionary.  Only 2% were recorded as voting No because of concerns that the EU would allow gay marriage, abortion or euthanasia and only 1% in order to avoid an influx of immigration.

This latter result however demonstrates the weakness of opinion polls as guides to political realities.  The racist referendum result in 2004 confirms that racism is a much bigger problem than 1% tallies would indicate and anti-racist campaigners could be under no illusions that the problem is so small.

The uncertainty of a significant section of the No vote was made explicit when 20% said they did not know whether the No vote would be good or bad for Ireland.  It is fairly clear however that a majority of No voters agreed or accepted Sinn Fein’s line that the Treaty should be renegotiated.  They did not therefore say that it was in principle rotten and had to be unconditionally rejected.  The Eurobarometer poll recorded 76 per cent of No voters thinking that the No vote would allow the Irish government to renegotiate the Treaty.


The rose-tinted glasses of the left are in part the product of the relatively clear class division in voting.  Manual workers voted 74% against the Treaty while the self employed voted 60% in favour as did 58% of professionals and 66% of senior managers.  The young also voted against the Treaty: 65% of 18 to 24 year olds doing so compared to 42% of the over 55s.

These statistics illustrate the potential which socialists could develop if united on a political basis to define an unconditional and principled socialist opposition.  Instead they either talk of new moves towards unity which repeat old formulas or they see the potential in the purely sectarian terms of pushing their own organisation.

The first step in actually taking a new road would ironically be to copy our class enemy.  The government has said it wants to understand the No vote, obviously to change it.  The left should also seek to understand the No vote, but in our case to strengthen it and deepen it, to protect it from those who are all too capable of betraying it.

‘What part of No don’t you understand’ is a great slogan to assail the Yes establishment when it seeks to reject the result.  It is no use however as a tool of analysis or for devising our future strategy.  On no account should we rely on it.


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