A Last Word on Lisbon
Deaglán de Bréadún
There was a stark contrast between Dublin Castle last Saturday and the same place in June 2008, when the No side won the first Lisbon referendum. This time the place was like a morgue. Last time, photographers literally almost came to blows trying to take pictures of Gerry Adams and his colleagues in Sinn Féin.
Give us an aul’ smile, Brian (Photo by Alan Betson)
Last time it was Niamh Uí Bhriain who was hoisted on the Cóir people’s shoulders when the final official result was announced, this time it was Professor Brigid Laffan being carried aloft by the Ireland for Europe organisation.
I predicted in the final weeks that the result would be 58-42 for the Yes side but the scale of the victory took everyone by surprise.
The Yes people were actually quite nervous up to the end. This was more of a reflection of the effort they had put in this time, rather than a realistic assessment of the state of play. The economic house is in danger of going up in flames and the punters are looking to Europe to send in the fire brigade – which it already has, in the form of the European Central Bank and its support for the Nama project.
There were no mobs around Adams this time: SF should probably have pocketed the gain on the commissionership and claimed the credit whilst advocating a Yes vote this time. It would have been smart politics although some of their supporters would have been upset. The EU has been a big supporter of the peace process in the North.
Although he did not look particularly cheerful, it was a good day for Brian Cowen. At last he has won something, since taking over as Taoiseach.
Normal business can now resume. The Greens will be agonising about their future on Saturday. Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue is in the firing-line over expenses. In the meantime, some may care to ponder and even react to my own thoughts on the result, as published in today’s paper:-
ECONOMIC ADVERSITY A KEY PLAYER FOR THE YES CAMPAIGN
ANALYSIS: Persuasion rather than bullying paid off for the winning side this time, writes DEAGLÁN de BRÉADÚN , Political Correspondent
THE SIMPLE explanation for the dramatic turnaround on the Lisbon Treaty is contained in the timeworn phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
The scale of our economic misfortunes that emerged in the period since the last vote in June 2008 undoubtedly played a critical role. But even a team playing with the wind at its back still has to win scores and the approach of various political and civic players made a significant contribution to the victory of the Yes side.
As with the second Nice treaty referendum back in 2002, there was a more determined approach by Yes campaigners, born out of a realisation that this was their last chance. At his final press conference, Taoiseach Brian Cowen said there would be no “Lisbon III” and it is hard to see how a third appeal to the electorate would have had the slightest shred of credibility.
Other countries facing referendums will now study the Irish example to see how you can overturn an unfavourable result. The twin lessons are: treat people with respect; and don’t rush things.
In his book of reminiscences about his time as press spokesman for Albert Reynolds, Seán Duignan describes the Government’s strategy for the Maastricht Treaty referendum as one of simply striking fear into people’s hearts.
This was not the strategy chosen on this occasion because of a concern that any hint of bullying which would give rise to resentment and merely enhance the support of the No side. There was already a “fear factor” in any case, because of the economic crisis and the state of the public finances.
It is clear that about one-third of the electorate will almost always vote No to European treaties for a variety of reasons.
The key task for campaigners in such a situation is to influence the “soft” vote that is broadly favourable to the EU but wary of change and susceptible to the argument that “Brussels is going too far”.
This was the secret of Declan Ganley’s success on the No side last time when he portrayed himself as a strong pro-European who nevertheless had reservations about Lisbon. His Libertas group also had the resources to put this message across.
As one Fianna Fáil insider put it, the sizeable element among No voters open to persuasion needed a “letter of transit” to bring them on to the Yes side. This was where the guarantees proved crucial. Despite the efforts by the No side to challenge the legal standing of these assurances, they struck home and were a decisive factor in the debate.
Sinn Féin and others argued that the treaty text was unchanged. But, as one Government source put it, the real point about the guarantees was that they showed Europe was listening, especially on the critical issue of retaining an Irish commissioner.
The Nice treaty was rejected in June 2001 and approved in a second vote in October 2002. Likewise with Lisbon, which was rejected in June 2008 and approved in October 2009. Nevertheless, this time there were elements on the Government side who wanted an early second referendum.
Instead of that, a slow and fairly deliberate approach was adopted, with a survey conducted into the reasons why people voted No, followed by protracted consultations with the other EU member states about the guarantees. All this gave people time to weigh the implications of their decision in June last year and to consider the arguments to the contrary.
There was also a greater level of solidarity and cohesion on the Yes side this time around. The Taoiseach’s comment prior to the first referendum, when he expressed the hope that the main Opposition parties would “crank up their campaign”, gave rise to extraordinary bitterness and resentment. Cowen weighed his words more carefully this time and there were no other major gaffes such as his former admission that he had not read the full text of the treaty.
Fine Gael and Labour also refrained from using the referendum as a means of attacking the Government.
The No side’s penchant for broad, sweeping claims such as the Cóir poster suggesting the minimum wage could fall to €1.84 posed a major challenge. The assertion left pro-Lisbon campaigners complaining bitterly about “black propaganda” and the difficulties in dealing with it.
However, at an early stage of the campaign, Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin launched a scathing attack on “extreme groups”, pointing out the link between Cóir and anti-abortion group, Youth Defence.
Although the Yes campaign generally adhered to a positive message, Martin launched another salvo against the United Kingdom Independence Party and its anti-Lisbon leaflet which he said was, “quite the nastiest, most deceptive piece of literature ever distributed in an Irish referendum”.
Ganley’s return to the fray may have caused some initial concerns among his opponents but the reality was he had left it too late. His political standing suffered following his defeat as part of the general Libertas debacle in the European elections. He was also contradicting his statement at the count in Castlebar last June: “I will not be involved in the second Lisbon campaign. I’ve said that upfront.”
Other key factors on the Yes side were the active campaigns run by civil society groups such as Ireland for Europe, We Belong and Women for Europe; the generally more positive approach from the farming sector and trade unions; the adverts taken out by Intel and Ryanair; and the muted approach by Eurosceptic British-owned newspapers on this occasion.
But it finally came down to the economy and the ability of voters to distinguish between an unpopular Government and the issue of the treaty. The sophistication of the Irish electorate should never be underestimated.
(c) 2009 The Irish Times