A crucial victory

 

YES CAMPAIGNERS may have fought it valiantly, but there was a perception that voting for the fiscal treaty was about voting to accept more pain, taking unpleasant medicine with heavy heart, reluctantly but with a certain sense of inevitability. Turkeys voting for Christmas (despite the less understood truth that a No vote would certainly have meant even greater pain). It is then all the more remarkable, and to their credit, that citizens have approved this treaty.

The referendum may be an important democratic mechanism for legitimising constitutional change, but as the nearly bankrupt state of California is painfully aware, when such changes are about the voters’ pockets, keen to avoid pain, they are often willing to approve mutually contradictory policies, both tax cuts and new spending commitments. Not to disparage our Constitution, but as a way of taking tough economic decisions, plebiscitory democracy has its limitations.

Nevertheless, Ireland this time voted Yes. It was a decision that is not only crucial to keeping open the possibility of renewed European funding – importantly re-emphasised in recent days in talk of using bailout funds to recapitalise banks – but also in sending a signal to EU partners and international investors that Ireland’s place remains at the heart of the EU integration process and of the euro. And that is where the country’s voice, its authority enhanced by a new democratic mandate, must now be heard loudly in the debate ahead of this month’s summit on a meaningful growth package, the promise of which was undoubtedly crucial to the Yes vote.

Yes campaigners, not least the Government parties, have clearly learned from the experience of the Nice and Lisbon treaties when complacency cost them dear. This time Fine Gael, Labour, and Fianna Fáil all deserve credit for throwing themselves into a serious campaign that took nothing for granted. Despite abysmal poll satisfaction ratings they managed to bridge the gap between an angry public and the political class to sustain and win a difficult argument.

But the result, though somewhat reassuring, leaves major challenges for them all. On the one hand Sinn Féin has made hay leading the opposition to the treaty, substantially boosting its poll standing and eroding both Labour and Fianna Fáil’s base. The latter will find clawing back that vote hugely difficult. On the other, and related issue, the result confirms dramatically a growing working-class alienation also clearly seen in the Lisbon polls – ironically perhaps manifesting a much more European political culture and cleavages than our own domestic politics.

The eventual spillover of such rejectionism into national parliamentary politics could also lay the basis for permanent shifts in political allegiances, the eclipse of once-dominant parties, and the emergence of new ones. Just as the European economy and its integration has reshaped our own, Europe’s politics may do likewise with our sclerotic, dysfunctional politics.

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