I have a lot of sympathy with the Republic’s Finance Minister Brian Lenihan when he asks the electorate to be wary of the various unelected pressure groups (Libertas perhaps being the most notable). We don’t know for certain who is behind Libertas. And the Minister is also right when he argues:
…all the major political parties whom the citizens of this country have supported election after election are united in strongly urging a ‘Yes’ vote in the best interests of this country. The people know and have resided considerable trust in many who are calling for a yes vote. That counts in a democratic country and nobody should be frightened by the scare-mongering tactics of a minority of vociferous and highly motivated groups who have disappeared into the shadows after each referendum campaign.
The problem is that a referendum is an appeal to the broad spread of the people as the final executors of the state. At that moment, the political parties of the state only become other bit players in the drama. The government had an advantage here, insofar as they chose the timing of the debate. After that all bets are off. Libertas, Coir and the dozen other micro groups do not need a mandate to pull this off. They just need to be better than the Super Coalition.
Ironically, and at the 11th hour, Meath East TD Tommy Byrne has hit upon a crowd sourcing idea for fielding people’s concerns about the treaty. As Cian notes at Irish Election, it’s preferable to the scary apocalyptic stuff that’s being pumped out (in desperation?) elsewhere.
The French (one of the countries set to gain out of the Lisbon Treaty arrangements) are getting heavy about who suffers if Ireland’s answer is Non! In fact, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner warning that “the first victim . . . would be the Irish” looks to be aimed squarely at the Cowen led government in the event they refuse to relaunch the Titanic and have a second referendum.
He did not pull his punches: “Everyone is going to ratify it. It would be very, very, very troubling . . . that we not be able to count on the Irish, who counted a lot on Europe’s money.”
If Ireland votes No, Dr Kouchner said the French presidency would pursue implementation of the treaty, all the while “trying to convince the Irish who have already re-voted once on the Nice Treaty to put this treaty back on the drawing board”.
A second Irish vote “is starting to be envisaged everywhere”, he said, but “a little incomprehension is going to transform itself into gigantic incomprehension. You won’t face up to things by being alone; on the contrary, the Irish would truly penalise themselves.”
In contrast, Declan Ganley of Libertas told Mary Fitzgerald he believed Ireland could get a better deal out of saying No:
“We have to keep our commissioner; we cannot have our voting weight halved at the European Council while Germany’s is doubled; we need a protocol on taxation to protect our competitiveness economically, and if there is going to be a president of Europe and a foreign minister of Europe these people need to be democratically accountable.”
Of course, as the Minster says, none of these groups “will be around to cope with the consequences for this country if we reject the Lisbon Treaty”. But that’s the deal when you give the vote to the people to decide. If you force them to subsist on the thin gruel of ‘party gaming’ (and the UK is little better on this), you have little leverage left at the vital point in the campaign.
Last Saturday Stephen Collins argued that a No vote would show a lack of confidence in the Republic’s politicians:
Regardless of whether the treaty is carried or lost, those involved in politics need to ask themselves serious questions about the kind of democracy we have. General election results suggest we are close to becoming a one-party state, yet on major issues of public policy, including referendums, a substantial proportion of the electorate seems to have no faith in those who run the State.
Win or lose, the success of this asymmetrical warfare is an indictment of Ireland’s populist approach to all things political. Focus on the constituency combined with party self interest trumps the national interest every time.
Libertas, in appointing a non Eurosceptic to lead the campaign (a stroke of genius, cynical or otherwise) has focused on bringing an argument to the table to which Ireland’s party machines, with all the immense resources they have had to hand, have been unable to find a timely answer.
Losing this vote will sting some people within those parties to the core. And give them pause to think more deeply, not simply about the Lisbon Treaty but about the very way they conduct politics. As the old saying goes: “For the want of a nail…”
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty