Disgrace of Lisbon vote built on fear and ignorance

Fri, Jun 20, 2008, 01:00

The men who built this society would have despaired that people voted without finding out what was at stake, writes John Waters

AFTER MY father died, almost 20 years ago, we found among his belongings a faded, decaying draft copy of Bunreacht na hÉireann, circulated in advance of the 1937 referendum on "Dev's Constitution".

The document was dog-eared and heavily underscored, and had many notes in the margins. Clearly, my father had carried it around with him in his pocket for a very long time, and thought and talked about its contents a great deal.

There has been much said this past week about democracy and the will of the people. The people have spoken and the people cannot be wrong. But, in my father's time, when the people spoke, they did so after informing themselves of the issues and reflecting at length. Tom Waters despised de Valera with every fibre of his being, but voted for his Constitution because he admired it immensely. He was as proud of that document as if he had written it himself. He resisted many subsequent attempts to amend it, but always on the basis of the arguments - never because he did not understand them.

The idea of voting against a proposal because he did not grasp its implications would for him have amounted to sacrilege.

If it could be said that the Irish electorate, after due consideration of the merits of the Lisbon Treaty, had decided to vote No, then this might be cause for all Irish democrats to celebrate. But that is not what happened last week. Judging from the intelligence thus far accumulated about what I will loosely call the logic underlying the vote, the most effective slogan of the campaign appears to have been, "If you don't know, vote No". The outcome, then, was a disgrace, not because of the content of the decision but because of the justifications offered for it.

Now the whole thing is over, there is no sense of exhilaration or achievement, other than among a tiny proportion of activists of the extreme left and right. It is as though we find ourselves in the moment of realisation after a heated but meaningless row, when the parties look into each other's eyes with a feeling of embarrassment and dawning awareness. There is a sense that the frenzy of the moment has taken things too far, and now we must sweep up the broken delph.

The impression to be gained is that we voted No (and, whether we like it or not, we all, as a collective, voted No) because of irrelevancies, or peripheralities, or, in many instances, just plain spite, pique or ignorance. There is even a feeling that many of us voted No in the belief that enough people would vote Yes to absolve us from responsibility for the consequences of our empty, petulant gestures.

A survey of 2,000 voters conducted by the European Commission immediately after the vote revealed that more than 70 per cent of those who voted No believed the treaty could easily be renegotiated.

This poll also found that many people who did not understand the treaty voted No; that the overwhelming majority of women voted No; that young people voted No by a margin of two to one; and that immigration (ie, xenophobic sentiment) was a significant factor in the No vote.

One of the points consistently made by the No side during the campaign was that Ireland would be the only country in the EU to vote on Lisbon, and this makes it doubly shameful that we threw away the opportunity in a jumble of empty gestures. The outcome seems to articulate something much darker than anything remotely to do with the treaty, a kind of fury with no precise centre. It is as though Lisbon acted as a poultice to draw out a whole range of festering resentments, many unspecified and even publicly denied, which have combined to create a single and, for the moment, intractable political conundrum. One ten-thousandth of the EU's population has applied the brakes to the will of the overwhelming majority, and narcissism, rage, envy, neurosis, selfishness, paranoia and various forms of ignorance are the chief identifiable characteristics of this travesty.

We have been assured by the victors that this vote demonstrates the maturity, independent-mindedness and sophistication of the Irish electorate. Clearly, it does nothing of the sort, but was arguably the most disgraceful episode in the history of Irish democratic procedures.

There is a reason why children are prohibited from voting, and this goes also to the heart of why adults are expected to treat the franchise with solemnity. The voter has a duty to try to understand the significance of things, and, if in doubt, to abstain. My father's generation of proud democrats, who witnessed the blood of their contemporaries flow in streams for the right to self-determination, would have despaired at the idea that people could vote on an issue without bothering to find out what was really at stake. It is a comfort that these iron men who built this society were not around to witness this latest exercise in self-regarding ignorance by the most pampered, narcissistic and vacuous generation ever to enter an Irish polling booth.