Preparing for another ‘Neverendum’
Deaglán de Bréadún
So we’re officially on the road to a second Lisbon referendum. It’s been the worst-kept secret in Irish politics since, well, the counting of the votes last June. The best chance this time around is that the recession will, let’s not shilly-shally here, frighten people into voting Yes.
We’ve been here before of course. The Nice Treaty was turned-down but later accepted. The Yes campaign first time was pathetic; the second one quite impressive – and successful.
Reading a piece I wrote after the first Nice referendum, the number of similarities with “Lisbon One” were quite striking. Just as with Nice One, we had Bertie denigrating the No people as “loo-lah’s”. I was in the room myself when he said it, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Ballsbridge.
There was a similar lack of commitment on the Yes side who, with the usual notable exceptions, just did not put in the work. Interestingly – and I had forgotten this – the issue of funding for the No side was highlighted by the pro-treaty campaigners but for all the talk there was no “smoking gun”.
One of the big differences with Nice One and Two is that the Green Party is now “off the pitch”. Their ministers have spoken in favour of Lisbon but there is no official party campaign, since they could not get the requisite two-thirds support for a change of policy. Of course there is the Declan Ganley factor this time.
My Irish Times piece of 9 June 2001, the day after Nice was rejected, is reproduced in full below (if I gave you the link you would have to pay for it) :-
Seven deadly sins that sank the Yes campaign
All is changed, changed utterly. Hopefully, not a “terrible beauty” but a new and more people-friendly Europe will be born. It would be a pity if the Nice referendum result were to be glided over and ultimately airbrushed from political discourse by our masters, because it contains important lessons in both domestic and European terms.
Among the seven deadly sins of the Yes campaign, sloth is the first that comes to mind. Apart from a noble and selfless few, the supporters of the treaty did not come out and knock on doors. The so-called “flatearthers” on the other side were working flat out.
Two images: the night before the vote I saw two young men shinning up a lamp-standard to place one last placard urging a No vote, and a colleague taking the train from Balbriggan before 7 a.m. one day encountered Trevor Sargent of the Green Party handing out leaflets against Nice.
Anger was another besetting sin on the Yes side. The usual nice, conciliatory Taoiseach we all know was replaced by Bertie the negative campaigner, putting out a shrill message to the effect that the No crowd were an extremist rabble and that Europe expected everyone to do their duty.
Envy: The Yes people made the funding of the other side the main issue in the last days of the campaign, diverting attention from the substance of the treaty. Allegations were made about British Tories giving large amounts to the National Platform and American Biblethumpers backing the No to Nice campaign, but there was a paucity of supporting documentation.
Pride: The feeble Yes campaign generated a feeling on the ground that these people were too haughty to request a vote for the treaty. Maybe they were just shy. The legendary Tip O’Neill explained to a disappointed aspirant for office that he hadn’t supported him because he hadn’t been approached. “You’ve got to ask,” O’Neill said.
Complacency: All the organs of the establishment from the political parties through most of the trade unions and many of the bishops issued a variety of statements explicitly or implicitly supporting the treaty. It was all a little too neat and tidy and lacking in spontaneity. No doubt unfairly, the punters smelt a stitch-up.
Arrogance: This mainly came from a variety of senior EU figures who made unhelpful speeches and comments about their plans for our future without taking the likely effect on the Irish electorate into account.
Impatience: It was a mistake to allow such a short time for the debate. Calls for a Forum on the Future of Europe after the referendum were seized on and exploited by the No side who said this was like closing the door after the horse had bolted. Vote now and you can ask questions later seemed to be the message.
Just as the strength of the anti-Nice campaign was underestimated in advance of the vote, so the power and influence of the No lobby is being exaggerated after the result. Most of them are small groups of part-time activists who worked on the campaign in their spare time. It was not so much a case of the No campaign winning the referendum as the Yes side losing it.
The possibility of a second referendum now looms. The Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA) has indicated that it would probably stand aside if there was a protocol that clearly excluded Ireland from participation in, or funding of, the Rapid Reaction Force. In theory, therefore, the current majority against Nice could be reduced, but we do not know how many people voted No because of the neutrality issue.
Secondly, a Pandora’s box of issues has now been opened and the number of people concerned about, say, Enhanced Co-operation, may have increased significantly. The PANA group is only one faction in the informal anti-Nice coalition and a spokesman for the No to Nice Campaign claimed his organisation had exerted far greater influence on the referendum result. The No to Nice group essentially wants the process of European federalism stopped in its tracks. Its spokesman also called for the resignation of Mr Ahern and Mr Brian Cowen from their current positions. “We do believe in a European Union of co-operating independent states,” he said.
The Green Party has done well out of the referendum campaign. Mr John Gormley and Ms Patricia McKenna in particular have raised their political profiles. Mr Gormley, who rides a bicycle, seems to be trusted by more members of the public on European issues than many who travel in State cars.
The Green Party has its own set of priorities which differ from every other faction including Sinn Fein. It was no accident that No votes tended to be higher in constituencies where Sinn Fein was active. The party was clearly using the referendum as a dry-run for the general election. Why the established parties could not do the same remains a mystery.
Europe’s democratic deficit has come home to roost. Eurocrats careering down the fast track to integration need to pull into the next lay-by and take the time to explain the grand plan in ordinary language to ordinary citizens.
It should be said that there was little or no evidence of xenophobia in the Irish campaign and both sides expressed their support in principle for enlargement. There will be disappointment in the former Communist countries where many people will be dismayed at the prospect of further delay in their admission to the EU.
Most Irish voters would regard this as an undesirable side-effect of the referendum result: people here did not vote No in order to keep out the Poles and the Czechs but because they were concerned or confused about other issues.
This is possibly the most remarkable and unexpected result since the 1977 general election when virtually no one read the public mood accurately. A little humility from Government leaders and their European counterparts is now in order. Instead of lecturing and berating the voters they should indicate that they have been given food for thought and that the various messages implicit in the result will be carefully studied and sensible conclusions drawn. But a tactical, spin-doctored humility will not suffice: the conversion to a listening approach must be genuine. Repent ye sinners, before it is too late.