Ireland’s first genuinely ‘free’ referendum on foreign policy for some time…

Well, it’s all go! Despite some considerable irritation in Brussels that all its efforts to avoid a referendum on the Fiscal Compact turned out to be for nothing, as the Irish Times points out:

Because the treaty does not require all participating states to ratify it before coming into operation, an Irish No would leave this State behind as the rest of the euro zone moved ahead with closer integration. Ireland might remain formally a euro member, but, critically, outside the central decision-making core that has in effect already become the EU’s advance guard.

Most importantly, a No would deprive Ireland of further access to the bailout mechanisms and cash, the protective shield which is crucial to our standing in the markets and our recovery.[Emphasis added].

It goes on to counsel its readers that this is not the time to give the country’s political leaders a bloody nose. Hmmm… Yet the numbers are a little too tight for that kind of appeal to make an effect on its own; it was 40-36 in favour last time anyone asked.

A second bite of the cherry could technically happen, of course. But the Irish government won’t be acting from from a position of strength (well, maybe about as strong as Greece) in dealing not with the European Union but with a Eurozone group of coalition of the willing.

A No to the Fiscal Compact will be taken as a serious declaration of intent to leave the Eurozone (unless Ireland can find independent means to continue supporting its debt outside the European Stability Fund). It could also trigger a retrenchment to a core Eurozone area comprised of countries which possess the political will to accept the formal control mechanisms of the Compact.

On the other hand, it has been argued, that under Barrosso, the trend of thirty years of capital transfer from the centre to the periphery has been drastically reversed. As Gavin Hewitt points out:

In Brussels there is often a palpable fear of consulting voters. But step by step significant powers are being given to the Commission which weaken national governments. In the future governments will have to submit their budgets to Brussels for review. EU officials will be able to demand spending cuts, with the threat of fines. Despite what the voters may want, under the new pact countries will have to deliver a balanced budget.

It is anticipated that in order to save the single currency full fiscal union and eventual political union will follow. Such changes would be huge.

That would be that political trilemma raising its ugly head again.

Johnny Fallon reckons that any such failure should be followed by a general election. yet neither party inside government is likely to be up for that, whatever the degree of internal dissent. And they easily make the numbers required to stop it.

Lose this poll, and the Coalition would be on the back foot all the way back to the next. In which case you can be sure that whomever calls for it, no one in the current Government will want it to happen. Not without other factors intervening.

Following Quintin Oliver’s advice to Alex Salmond on referendums, this is still relatively early for the government. But there are cracks, and satisfaction levels are not as high they were. Although around 60% of the country believe some degree of austerity is necessary. And as Quintin noted at the time:

Voters do not take their cue from their favoured political party. Research shows they do nod to party views, but are significantly less bound by them, feeling that if an issue is so important as to deserve a poll, they must look more widely to civic society and other opinion-formers.

As ever, Ireland’s political parties will face the electorate where they are generally weakest; ie on the issues rather than personalities.

The ‘best hope’ may be that the consensus to impose common fiscal controls in the Eurozone falls apart before Ireland has a chance to bite the plebiscite bullet. Second, perhaps, may be to point out that this is effectively a vote on whether the country stays in the Euro, or goes it alone.

Sinn Fein the party likely to lead the No campaign, has been itching for this moment. And it will do so with considerably more force and impact (no upstart Ganley and Libertas to get in the way either) than when the first Lisbon treaty was rejected. That youth team are now in the first team and have the real political standing in Leinster House they lacked in 2008.

But then again the people are playing for much higher stakes now. The incongruity of the treaty ought to be less of a problem, since the consequences either way are hardly in doubt.

If they choose ‘No’, they are almost certainly taking an exit from the Eurozone and into a whole new (largely uncharted) world [of pain? – Ed]. If they choose ‘Yes’, it’s further co-option into a Brussels-centred fiscal union.

This time it seems to be a pretty free and – barring Eurozone-wide disasters – consequential choice.

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