Result is a reflection of popular belief that things can only get worse

Sat, Jun 14, 2008, 01:00

Instead of confidence, the outcome speaks more of a desperate desire for things to continue as they have been, writes Fintan O'Toole.

THERE WAS something both apt and poignant about the coincidence of referendum polling day with the 20th anniversary of Ireland's famous defeat of England in the 1988 European soccer championships.

When Ray Houghton put the ball in the English net and the men in green held on for a doughty victory the national outpouring of ecstasy betrayed a desperate hunger for hope and self-confidence.

The economy was grim, there were savage cutbacks in public services and mass emigration returned to haunt us. We were looking for reasons to be cheerful. On Thursday, with bad economic news and cutbacks in public services, we were searching for something else. Instead of reasons to be cheerful, we were scanning the horizon for reasons to be fearful. The contrast told us something about the way Irish society has changed.

The 19th century Prussian writer Alexander von Humboldt remarked that "diplomacy today is a collective education in fear". In a referendum campaign that was really an exercise in mass diplomacy - the people determining their country's relationship with the world around them - both sides combined to give us a thorough education in fear.

A woman in Galway city told Morning Irelandthat she entered the polling booth undecided but "I got a bit of information that if I voted Yes my sons would be drafted into the army, so I voted No . . . Our sons are too good-looking for the army". While her reasoning may have been a little extreme, it was no more than an exaggeration of the general tenor of the campaigns.

It was appropriate that both sides should have accused each other of scaremongering, for fear was the one area of real common ground. The various No campaigns formed a loud (if dissonant) orchestra of anxieties - about taxation, abortion, militarisation. We were even treated to stickers of a nuclear mushroom cloud, as if Lisbon was a suburb of Armageddon.

But the Yes side indulged in its own brand of counter-terror. While the No campaign was scaring us with what would happen if we voted for Lisbon, the Yes side told us hair-raising tales of what might happen if we didn't - shame, isolation, disinvestment. It managed the extraordinary trick of making the word Yes sound anything but positive. In essence, voters were being asked to decide which brand of trepidation they wanted to buy.

Yet this decision to abandon hope, and retain nightmare scenarios instead, didn't just spring spontaneously from the campaigners. It was what they thought we wanted to hear. They sensed that whereas, in the last big economic downturn 20 years ago, our national anthem could have been Things Can Only Get Better, this time it is "Things Can Only Get Worse".

In 1988 we had fallen so far that we knew that change could only be good. There was still a kind of innocence in the way we seized on anything - a slightly fluky win over England, hosting the Eurovision - as evidence that we were okay. In 2008 we've begun to assume that change can only be bad. We've had the bright future we dreamed of in 1988 and we're desperately afraid that it's ebbing away.

The big surprise of the vote, indeed, was the extent to which anxiety crossed class and urban/rural lines. The expected sharp class division between No-voting working-class voters and middle-class Yes voters seems to have materialised only to a limited extent.

It is easy to understand why private-sector workers, who have been at the sharp end of globalisation and labour mobility, should be feeling raw. Likewise, there are obvious reasons why at least some farmers should be worried about the future. What's most striking, though, is that even the children of the Celtic Tiger, who have done so well for so long, are also feeling the chill draught of phobia.

It would be nice, of course, to see the outcome of the poll as a gesture of self-confidence, and the No campaigners will surely see it that way. For them, this was about plucky little Ireland asserting itself by standing up to the big European bully. But it is impossible to square that notion with the aura of dread - sometimes bordering on paranoia - that hung over the whole affair. The perception that the Establishment (that nebulous but potent entity) is conspiring to do us down entirely trumped the actual lived experience of 35 years during which the EU has patently not been Ireland's enemy.

Instead of confidence, the result speaks more of a desperate desire for things to continue as they have been. Previously, when we voted on European treaties, we thought of what we had to gain. This time, we thought of what we have to lose. The Celtic Tiger years have given us a sense of possession, of having something to hold on to. As it starts to slip away, our instinct is to hold on fast and hope that, by sheer force of will, we can stop the world changing. We can't, of course, but for a few days at least the Lisbon vote will give us the illusion that we can control global events.

The strong No vote also tells us something about the dysfunctional nature of our collective relationship to politics.

The same Irish Timespoll that showed that most people weren't buying Government reassurances about Lisbon also showed that that same Government would have been comfortably returned to power if there had been a general election on Thursday.

So here's the paradox: we don't trust the people we vote for. We don't believe the people we ask to run the country when they tell us that they know what's good for the country. What on earth is going on here? What's going on is that we have a more or less permanent Fianna Fáil government which holds power almost by default. It dominates the political system not because most voters think it's wonderful but because we're unconvinced by the alternative.

This creates a collective political psyche that could perhaps be called a simmering stability. Beneath a calm surface, resentments boil and bubble. They overflow in unpredictable rages.

As the Russian political system in the 19th century was described as "absolutism tempered by assassination", ours could now be defined as a one-party state tempered by outbursts of antipathy.