‘There was scaremongering on both sides’

Jason Walsh reports from Dublin where it seems neither the Yes camp nor the No camp voted with much enthusiasm.

Jason Walsh

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The results are in. Ireland has said Yes to the Lisbon Treaty. And for some, it has come not a moment too soon. The European Union can now get on with the business of governing Europe without worrying about having to engage with the public.

Despite a reasonable – by Irish standards – turnout of 58 per cent and an apparent ‘landslide’ of 67 per cent in favour of the treaty, there is little evidence of public enthusiasm for the result. Pan-European broadcaster Euronews reported that celebrations were sparse and spontaneity unconvincing. This is quite the understatement – were it not for the sparseness, the celebrations would have been reminiscent of Albanian workers ‘spontaneously’ celebrating the achievements of Enver Hoxha circa 1975.

What the treaty result does demonstrate is disconnection: between the elites – political, business and media – and the public, and also between the political process and reality as it is lived in Ireland.

Unlike the 2008 referendum, which was dominated by posters of smiling political leaders urging a Yes vote, the 2009 campaign was dominated by asinine messages such as ‘Yes in the City’ and ‘Europe: We belong – you decide’ from previously unheard-of organisations. As a result, much has been made of how the appearance of the obviously phoney civil society groups that sprung up to promote the Yes campaign, including Women for Europe, Generation Yes and Liberal Society, demonstrate an engagement with big political issues that we haven’t seen since the end of the conflict in the Northern Ireland.

Nothing could be further from the truth. True, from inside the bubble where life consists of reading the Irish Times and making remarks in the online echo chambers of Facebook and Twitter, political engagement does seem to be on the rise. However, on the ground the reality is rather different: there was political debate and engagement during the first referendum last year, but far less this time round.

It was a grey but bright afternoon, the day after the night before, and people could be forgiven for refusing to talk about politics to a scruffy reporter who resembled a well-heeled tramp more than a journalist. Yet the people of Dublin appeared happy to share their views on the Lisbon Treaty.

I met car breakdown specialist Graham Hunter on the streets of the Dublin suburb of Dún Laoghaire. He explained that he voted No in 2008, but Yes on Friday. Having not heard the results until we spoke, Hunter suggested the outcome was unrelated to the content of the treaty: ‘People were afraid – the economic climate has changed so much’, he said. His ambivalent Yes vote is far from the resounding endorsement for the treaty claimed by victorious campaigners: ‘I don’t believe the government’, he said.

He also notes that no other EU country enjoyed a referendum: ‘They’re not even getting a vote’, he said. ‘As I understand it, if a lot of countries were given a vote it’d probably be No.’

John McIntyre, a radiographer who lives in Limerick, was unable to vote due to a technicality, but was unmoved by the campaign. ‘There was a lot of scaremongering on both sides’, he said. ‘I was thinking Yes, but on the day I had moved towards No.’

Even among more committed Yes voters, there is little sense of having won a significant political victory. In fact it seems to be more of a reaction against the style of the No campaign. ‘I thought the No campaign was eurosceptic, and scare-mongering’, Edel Horan, an MA student, told me.

Junior doctor Mairéad Nic an Fhailí, who also voted in support of the treaty, gave it a far-from-ringing endorsement. ‘I’m pro [Lisbon] almost by default’, she said. ‘Neither side presented a particularly strong argument, but the anti argument appeared to have too many flaws and sensational propaganda, including a slightly apocalyptic tone, implying that Ireland’s independence is at risk.

‘The No campaign seemed like a shambles based on inaccuracies, sensationalism and history rather than the future. At least the Yes campaign was predominantly based on looking forward’, she concluded.

Nic an Fhailí’s feeling that the Yes campaign was future-oriented is partially true. Many of the Yes posters vaguely hinted at a better tomorrow with slogans like ‘Yes to Jobs’, ‘Yes to Recovery’ – as if anyone was campaigning against economic recovery. What they did not do, however, was make a positive case for what kind of society the treaty would bring about. In addition, Yes campaigners spent much of their time in the media disparaging the No camp and said almost nothing about the treaty itself.

Number crunching

Analysis of the results demonstrates what looks like a clear, old-fashioned class divide: working-class districts saw significantly higher volumes of No votes than higher-income areas. Although the result was different this time round, the voting pattern mirrors that of the 2008 referendum, in which lower-income areas also voted No.

Socialist Party member Domhnall Ó Cobhthaigh, a former Sinn Féin councillor in Northern Ireland, underscored this, noting that the Yes vote triumphed after a campaign that saw Ireland’s elite unusually united: ‘The key thing is – despite big business, the EU hierarchy, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, the bulk of the media, the Greens, the Irish Farmers’ Association, the bigger pro-partnership [trade] unions, key sport-stars, the greatest scare campaign on the back of the greatest economic crisis and [the] “holy mother church” all pronouncing in favour of a Yes – that almost 40 per cent of voters in the Republic still voted No.’

Nevertheless, despite the ostensible class divide, it would be a mistake to see the result as a marker for the development of oppositional politics – socio-economic divides are certainly on display, but they lack meaning in the absence of an organised working class.

Although anti-Lisbon sentiment on the left was represented by the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers’ Party, Sinn Féin and the Workers’ Solidarity Movement anarchist group, the No campaign was actually dominated by Cóir, a conservative anti-abortion lobby. The left was largely locked out of media coverage so that whenever an anti-Lisbon voice was wheeled out to speak it was invariably a less than sensible person or even an imported Little Englander such as outgoing UKIP leader Nigel Farage, a figure guaranteed to raise the hackles of the Irish, bringing up residual republican sentiment like stomach bile.

However, the fact that the left’s message did not prevail is unsurprising given that the hollowed-out remnants of the workers’ movement, in the form of the Irish Labour party and the trade union bureaucracies, supported a Yes vote. In fact, the appearance of partisan left- and right-wing political groups, something generally absent in Irish political life, in the campaign only underscored the fact that, in general, we have regressed into a pre-political era, one in which ideology-based political argument has little resonance.

The elite, though, has little to celebrate in its victory. The institutions of Ireland’s political and business classes, from the mainstream parties to the business groups, are as empty and unloved as the trade unions, and both sides are almost as irrelevant as the once all-powerful, now disgraced, Catholic church.

Ultimately, the Yes vote was an appropriate result: after all, the Lisbon Treaty will further strip meaning and participation from the political process not only in Ireland but across the European Union. The only landslides in the Lisbon referendum were of cynicism, fear and disengagement.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. Visit his website here.

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