Is the second referendum on Lisbon an abuse of democracy?

 

HEAD TO HEAD: YES writes MARY LOU McDONALD. The Government is misleading the electorate in their description of a new treaty "deal" NOwrites DICK ROCHE. We should take the opportunity to address all of the Irish people's concerns and to stay at the heart of Europe

IMAGINE IF the Government lost a general election but refused to concede defeat. Imagine if they said that while respecting the outcome, they believed that the electorate failed to understand the issues, were misled by opposition parties and manipulated by the media. Imagine if they decided to re-run the election, threatening international isolation and economic collapse if the electorate refused to change their mind.

Would you be outraged? Would you feel that your vote was being ignored? Would you think that democracy was being undermined?

This is exactly what the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government, supported by Fine Gael and Labour, is proposing to do with the Lisbon Treaty.

On June 12th, 2008, almost one million people rejected the Lisbon Treaty with a turnout that was higher than in the second Nice referendum. Opinion poll after opinion poll has demonstrated that people were deeply concerned with key aspects of the treaty. Issues of democracy, neutrality, public services, workers' rights, tax sovereignty and international trade were at the heart of the No vote.

It is clear that the electorate wants Ireland to remain at the heart of the European Union. The rejection of the Lisbon Treaty was not motivated by opposition to the EU or some new-found Euroscepticism. It was a pro-EU decision, a vote for a different kind of EU.

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum result, all political parties rushed to assure voters that their democratic verdict would be respected. For example Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore was vociferous in saying that the "Lisbon Treaty is dead" and that the concerns of the electorate must be addressed.

But we have been here before. Following the rejection of Nice in 2001, Dick Roche TD, now Minister of State for European Affairs, stated that: "The Nice Treaty, no matter what its good intentions, is a document that has been democratically tested in only one member state and that is Ireland. It failed to meet the democratic test in this nation. It is an arrogance for any politician, or any Commissioner in Europe, to ignore the fundamental fact that the Irish people have spoken with some clarity on the matter".

Following the rejection of Lisbon it was clear within weeks that not only Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, but also Fine Gael and Labour, were seeking ways to circumvent the democratically expressed wishes of the electorate and to put exactly the same treaty to a second referendum.

The substandard report of the Oireachtas sub-committee on Ireland's future in the EU is just one example of this behaviour.

At the recent European Council meeting in Brussels the Government committed itself to re-running the very same Lisbon Treaty for a second time. In return, they have agreed to a deal that would see EU leaders agree not to reduce the size of the European Commission for the time being and sign a number of declarations, on a small number of issues. Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin described such declarations as "legally binding".

However, the Government, supported by Fine Gael and Labour, are misleading the electorate in their description of this "deal". Ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would give away our automatic right to a commissioner. The Government's "deal" may see the commissioner remain for an unspecified period of time, but the power to reduce the size of the commission will be given to the council and sooner rather than later we will see an end to one commissioner per member state.

Equally, declarations are not legally binding. They do not have the same legal status as the text of a treaty or protocols to a treaty. They are exactly what they are called, political declarations made by politicians with no legal status or force. They are like the promises of a government at election time, made only to be broken.

More fundamentally, the "deal" outlined by the Government in Brussels will not address the substantive concerns raised by the electorate. The broader issue of the EU's democratic deficit, its erosion of workers' rights and public services, its emerging foreign and defence policy agendas, and its promotion of free trade over fair trade will not be addressed.

Sinn Féin wants Ireland to remain at the heart of Europe. We want to see Ireland's political strength maintained. We want to see neutrality protected. We want to see a social progress protocol that will protect the pay and conditions of workers. We want to see a new approach on public services. We want to see the Government deliver on the mandate which they were given on June 12th.

The high-handed and arrogant approach of the Government over the last six months shows a complete lack of respect for the democratic will of the people.

Re-running the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty would be a denial of democracy. It is no different to a defeated government re-running a general election in the hope that the voters would change their mind.

Mary Lou McDonald is a MEP for Dublin and is Sinn Féin's national chairperson.

WHEN TAOISEACH Brian Cowen addressed the European Council in October, he made it clear that the concerns of the Irish people as expressed in the June 12th referendum had to be addressed if the impasse on the Lisbon Treaty were to be resolved.

The factors that led the Irish people to vote No were established by painstaking research in the months following the June 12th referendum. That work was further assisted by the Oireachtas subcommittee on Ireland's future in the European Union.

We know from the research that one major factor which influenced people's decision to either abstain or vote No in the referendum was a feeling that there was a lack of sufficient information on or understanding of the treaty. This is a matter for domestic remedy.

More particular concerns that would only be addressed with the agreement of the other member states were also identified:

• a perceived loss of influence to Ireland when the European Commission ceased to include a national from every member state;

• worries about decisions on important social and ethical issues being taken out of Irish hands;

• concerns that our position on taxation, notably on corporation tax, could be undermined by the Lisbon Treaty;

• continuing concerns about a perceived threat to Ireland's traditional military neutrality; and

• fears that workers' rights would somehow be constrained.

At the October European Council, the Taoiseach made it clear that he would conscientiously hold to the concerns of the Irish people and would move forward only when those concerns were addressed.

The European Council meeting in Brussels the week before last marked a major step forward in addressing each and every one of those concerns.

Although many member states were strongly opposed to the idea of a large commission, it was agreed that if the treaty is ratified, every country will continue to have an commission member. This major and positive response to the concerns of the Irish people was unanimously accepted by the European Council. It fully addresses concerns of Irish voters on a key issue in the campaign.

In addition, the council agreed on a set of legally binding guarantees which, when finalised, will make it clear that:

• nothing in the Lisbon Treaty makes a change of any kind to Ireland's control over our taxation;

• the treaty does not in any way prejudice Ireland's traditional military neutrality; and

• the provisions of the Irish Constitution concerning the right to life, education and the family are wholly unaffected by the treaty.

On top of all of this, the council confirmed the high importance that the EU attaches to social progress, the protection of workers' rights, the responsibility of member states for the delivery of education and health services, and the essential role and discretion of national, regional and local governments in providing non-economic services of general interest.

Any fairminded person would see the outcome of the European Council as an exercise in democracy and a display of solidarity on the part of our fellow EU member states. They have listened to the Irish people, have accepted our concerns respectfully and have offered binding solutions which will address those concerns.

Sinn Féin, which has urged a No vote on every single European treaty and which of course vigorously opposed Ireland's joining the EU, has sought to diminish the value of the progress achieved, and that is perhaps no great surprise.

Libertas has also dismissed the council's conclusions out of hand. This organisation, which was responsible for the tens of thousands of posters right across the country in the referendum campaign urging people to save Ireland's commissioner, now dismisses the opportunity to do precisely that. Its self-appointed leader has dismissed the legally binding agreements before the texts are even concluded. No open mind there.

Should there be a second referendum? Surely, if we can address all of the concerns of the Irish people and keep Ireland at the heart of Europe, where most people believe we should be, why not?

Where is the logic in adopting a "not-an-inch attitude" when our EU partners have agreed to meet, comprehensively, the concerns of the Irish people?

Why should the Irish people be denied the opportunity to "save Ireland's commissioner"? Why should we spurn the opportunity to protect our sovereign position on corporate taxation? Why would we not want to secure additional guarantees that respect the provisions of the Constitution on the right to life, on education and on family issues? Why should the Irish people be denied the opportunity to copperfasten our tradition of military neutrality?

The short answer is that there is no logical reason why the Irish people should be denied that opportunity to give their views on the very positive benefits which are on offer.

• Dick Roche is Minister of State for European Affairs