A second Lisbon referendum

Thu, Jul 9, 2009, 01:00

A STARK, FRIGHTENING reality exists as the world has changed since the Lisbon Treaty was rejected in a referendum 13 months ago. Now, voters are being given a second chance to consider that verdict in the context of legal guarantees concerning military neutrality, control of taxation, family matters, education and the retention of an Irish commissioner. These assurances are important. The defining issue for Lisbon, second time round, is whether Ireland wants to stand financially isolated or part of a strong and supportive European Union.

Voters have had many reasons to think long and hard about their future in the current crisis. It is not just the economic landscape that has changed. Political leadership has come under intense and critical scrutiny during the past year. Support for the Government has fallen precipitately. Fine Gael has overtaken Fianna Fáil as the largest political party in the State. The Green Party was hammered in the local elections. And Libertas leader Declan Ganley, who played a pivotal role in the first referendum, announced his withdrawal from public life after failing to win a seat in the European Parliament. These new circumstances offer an opportunity for a reasoned and constructive debate about the terms of the treaty as they affect Irish interests now.

Opposition parties should resist any temptation they might feel to exploit the situation. Last time out, squabbling between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over which party was, or was not, pulling its weight led to disaster. The major Dáil parties engaged in complacent and desultory campaigns and were outsmarted and defeated by a combination of interests led by Libertas and Sinn Féin.

It is not just politicians who will have to put the national interest before other considerations. The first referendum was exploited by farmers and trade unions in their efforts to extract concessions from the Government on matters that had nothing to do with the treaty. Those demands contributed to negative sentiment and added to public confusion about what, precisely, the treaty involved. A week before polling day, some 60 per cent of those surveyed either did not know or were only vaguely aware of the issues.

A considerable amount of forward planning has taken place on this occasion. Apart from the legal guarantees secured by Mr Cowen in response to specific voter concerns, employers and exporters have combined to emphasise the importance of EU fiscal supports and markets at this time of economic crisis. Prominent personalities have been recruited to support a Yes vote. However, having lost the first referendum by a margin of six points on a turnout of 53 per cent, there is no room for complacency. Almost three months remain before polling on October 2nd. The Dáil will be in recess for most of that time and politicians will be on holiday. Having sleep-walked to disaster in the first referendum, political leaders cannot afford to be complacent. A vitally important decision has to made by the people of this State.