The Lisbon lamp-posts
PRESENT TENSE:YOU WILL, no doubt, be looking forward to the thrills and spills of another Lisbon referendum. Lisbon 2 – wouldn’t it be great if we could turn it into a trilogy? Imagine all the undecideds, and the fun they’ll have over the next four weeks. After 18 months of pondering, making up their mind, voting, not being sure again, having to put an X in at least one of the boxes. Their brains won’t be thanking them for the exercise, writes
It’s been a low-key campaign until now, but with the turning of the month the posters have risen and unfurled on the country’s lamp-posts. A referendum campaign is always particularly good for posters. During elections, candidates generally keep to affecting a visage of competence and an insistence that you give them your number one. But in referendums, posters tend to be split into two types: those that deploy some deeply thoughtful and usually shallow slogan; and those that, to put it in general terms, tell you that by voting for the proposal in question you will be condemning yourself or your children to slavery.
This week, the two sides became more visible on the streets. On the Yes side a chief lesson should have been not to treat this campaign as an opportunity to gain a bit of personal publicity – such as how Eamon Gilmore used the previous referendum as if it were a chance to impose the trappings of a personality cult through the country’s streets. Yet, there’s Enda Kenny, or his waxwork, alongside the “Yes to Recovery. Yes to Europe” slogan.
Slogans, as always, have something to say – even when they’re saying little. Fianna Fáil has deployed the direct “We Need Europe”, which seems to suggest that our island will be politically untethered and let float free should we vote no. The We Belong posters feature clean-cut, middle-class sorts and a slogan, “We Belong, You Decide”, that doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot. “We belong,” makes sense on its own. “You decide,” makes sense on its own. But as a duet, they just don’t work. It is the Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder of campaign slogans. Besides, “We Belong. You Decide” is weak. It’s a slogan that starts off being assertive, but then backs off a bit.
To be fair, it’s a problem for the Yes campaign in this kind of referendum, this struggle to condense the complexities of a lengthy pan-European legal document into a snappy line to lodge in the minds of motorists and bus passengers. An underestimation of this was among the many flaws in the Yes side’s strategy during the first campaign.
The No side, on the other hand, has a potent weapon: fear. Fear of loss of power, control, money. Which is why the anti-Treaty group Cóir this week produced a couple of posters that sat very neatly in the tradition of producing a line that is so outrageous it just might work.
Its “€1.84: minimum wage after Lisbon?” poster ended up with far more coverage than such a claim deserved. This revealed the problem the Yes side faces. It ends up spending time and effort refuting an arresting but extreme claim. As if it doesn’t have enough difficulty just trying to explain to people what the Treaty is about in the first place, they find themselves, in an exasperated tone, explaining what it’s not about, even at times when the accusation in question is as watertight as a boat made of sieves.
Yet, even if – as some have speculated – Cóir’s claim is so ridiculous as to shred its credibility from the start, there should be no underestimating the insidiousness of a decent poster in an argument with only two sides.
In the US healthcare debate, there’s a reminder of this in the Obama-as-Heath-Ledger’s-Joker poster, to which the word “socialism” is added. The poster was, it is claimed, created by a student using some software that allows anyone to “Jokerise” an image – but created without any political intent. And although it will never achieve the status of the ‘Hope’ image attached to Obama’s election campaign, it has become an icon of the healthcare debate, an image around which the president’s opponents rally, delighted in their mischief. And it is somewhat more creative than their accusations of Nazism.
The Lisbon 2 posters are nowhere near that strong – although one anti-Treaty poster has appropriated the Sex Pistols’s Never Mind the Bollocks- but already we find ourselves diverted by insistent, focused ranting from the lamp-posts. They may bring the debate to a low level, but shock posters can have a “stickiness” that can prove hard to shake off.