Putting across the Lisbon message

Fri, Sep 4, 2009, 01:00

THE LISBON Treaty referendum is more likely than not to be won, according to the latest Irish Times/TNS mrbi opinion poll. Government popularity and political complacency have led to a significant fall in the level of support for the Lisbon Treaty within the past four months. But more voters have moved into the “don’t know” camp, rather than transfer directly to a “No” position. With less than a month remaining until polling day, this erosion of support should shake the pro-Lisbon parties out of a lethargy that has been the distinguishing mark of their performances to date.

An eight-point drop in support in the most unpropitious political circumstances should not defeat the treaty. But, if that trend should accelerate and harden into committed opposition, the outcome of the referendum would become uncertain. The electorate still supports the proposition by a margin of 17 points. But, with the “don’t know” camp now amounting to 25 per cent of the electorate, those uncommitted voters could decide the outcome.

It was different last year, in the first referendum. Two weeks before polling day, a clear majority of the electorate had decided to reject the treaty. Significant majorities in both Fine Gael and the Labour Party indicated an intention to vote against, as did the farming community. This time, farmers are among the strongest supporters of the treaty, as are professional people. Support within Fine Gael is holding up but it has weakened somewhat within the Labour Party. Opposition is strongest within Sinn Féin and interestingly, among Green Party supporters.

In view of the unpopularity of the Government, it is vital that Fine Gael and the Labour Party should campaign strenuously in favour of the intrinsic benefits offered by this treaty and support its passage as a vital national interest. On the last occasion, a failure to rebut wild assertions by the “No” campaign; petty political point-scoring at national level and a lackadaisical performance by TDs, senators and their local organisations contributed to a comprehensive defeat. This time, the campaign will have to amount to more than a few desultory press conferences and interviews.

Issues that worried voters on the last occasion, such as neutrality, fiscal independence and the retention of an Irish commissioner, have been addressed. A public information deficit has been dealt with by way of painstaking negotiations in Brussels and the provision of legally binding commitments by EU governments to Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

The benefits of membership have become transparent during the current economic crisis and four out of five voters acknowledge that it is better for us to be in the EU. The drop in support for the Lisbon Treaty should not be surprising given the Government’s lack of authority and the financial pain which is has inflicted on the electorate. This is a time for voters to separate their attitude to The Taoiseach, Fianna Fáil and the Coalition Government from their own self-interest for their future.