Governing parties in no doubt about need for Yes vote


INSIDE POLITICS:Voters must decide on a real deal agreed by 25 EU governments rather than some notional perfect deal, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

THE POLITICAL challenge facing the Government in mobilising a Yes vote for the fiscal treaty is clear, but the real test is the one facing the Irish people who will have to live with the consequences of their decision on May 31st.

The fact that the electorate was given a second chance on the Nice and Lisbon treaties, having rejected them first time around, may have created a level of complacency among voters about the result of voting No.

The joke that the Europeans should know the Irish habit of saying an initial No out of politeness to any offer is all very fine, but this time around our EU partners have no reason to act like Mrs Doyle in Father Ted and came back to us pleading “go on, go on, go on”.

Ireland is the only country in the EU having a referendum on the stability treaty and the outcome has implications for ourselves alone.

Nobody will ask us to have a second referendum because the treaty will come into effect with or without us.

There is an obligation on the parties who favour a Yes vote to get out and campaign as if their lives depend on it, but there is also an obligation on voters to take the matter seriously. The first thing people need to do is inform themselves about the issues involved.

Of course, voters can be confused by the utterly contradictory claims and counter- claims of the Yes and No campaigns but they have two ways of dealing with that.

The first is to assess the basic information for themselves and the second is to make a rational choice about which side is more credible.

The politicians in Fine Gael and the Labour Party currently entrusted with the responsibility of governing the country have no doubt about the necessity of a Yes vote, as do those of the biggest Opposition party Fianna Fáil. All of these parties have been strongly pro-European since Ireland joined the then EEC in 1973.

Ranged against the treaty are Sinn Féin and a variety of left-wing groups who campaigned against Ireland’s entry to the EEC in the first place and have campaigned for a No vote at every subsequent referendum.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore cast a cold eye on the arguments routinely put forward by successive No campaigns during a presentation to the Forum on Europe in 2008.

He listed a number of things that had not happened over the previous 35 years of Ireland’s involvement in Europe.

Ireland had not been reduced to a province of a European empire; conscription had not been introduced for young Irish men and women; Ireland had not been forced to join any imperialist wars; the nation’s population had not collapsed; Irish culture had not become a thing of the past; trade union rights had not been abolished; abortion and euthanasia had not been introduced, and religious freedom was not suppressed.

“All of these firm fear-inducing predictions were made again and again, and every one was proved to be groundless and inaccurate. They are being made again today by the same individuals and they are just as unfounded and misleading,” said Gilmore.

This time around, most of these arguments haven’t been made because the treaty does what it says on the tin and is focused on the area of fiscal discipline, the aim of which is to protect the euro. The new refrain of the No campaigner is that the treaty is about the institutionalisation of austerity, as if the rejection of it would make austerity go away.

Former taoiseach John Bruton has countered that by pointing out that the direct opposite is actually the case.

“A No vote would be a vote for more austerity, not less. It would be a vote for cuts and tax increases. It would be a vote for higher interest rates. Because a No vote would deprive us of a right to apply to the European Stability Mechanism for funds, we would have to borrow, if at all, at higher interest rates from private investors, unless, of course, market perceptions of Irish public finances improve significantly.”

The key argument for the treaty is the direct and negative consequences of a No vote for the living standards of Irish voters and their children. There is no doubt about the fact that, at the very least, Ireland would find it harder and more expensive to borrow the €10 billion or more required to keep essential services going after 2014.

In a more doomsday scenario, we would not be able to borrow at all and massive pay cuts across the public services and deep cuts in welfare payments would ensue as expenditure was reduced to match tax revenue.

The No side denies that any of this would happen, and insists that the money would materialise from somewhere to keep the country running without the necessity for any spending cuts. Sinn Féin even managed to come up with selective quotes from leading economists implying that they favour a No vote even though the academics involved have actually said there was no option but to vote Yes. The economists left themselves open to misinterpretation because they argued in different ways that the stability treaty was not the solution to all of Europe’s problems.

That in a nutshell is the difficulty with referendums. The treaty is a political deal rather than the ideal solution to the euro crisis and so is open to fair as well as unfair criticism. The electorate, though, is faced with deciding on the actual deal agreed by 25 EU governments rather than some notional perfect deal. Voters need to be wary about being persuaded that “the best is the enemy of the good”.