Referendum really about a Yes or No to Irish politics

Fri, Jun 6, 2008, 01:00

Politics itself is on trial in the referendum, and Ahern's stint at the tribunal is bad timing for the Yes campaign, Elaine Byrne

'ST ANTHONY, St Anthony, please come around; something is lost that cannot be found." So goes the prayer to St Anthony when we cannot find what we are looking for.

St Anthony was born in Lisbon. His feast day is June 13th, a Lisbon holiday, the same day as the referendum count. And what will we find?

Speaking to 20 local and national political representatives campaigning for a Yes vote across rural Ireland yesterday, they all said the same thing. Door-to-door canvassing is modest. A Wexford councillor confided: "I am not an EU law expert so maybe silence is better than embarrassment."

A rural Connacht TD admitted that the party members who put up his Yes posters were voting No but felt obliged to put them up anyway because of their loyalty to him.

A Senator from a small Munster town said it was about showing face to the party. "At this stage it's a matter of running with the hares and chasing with the hounds."

The Yes side is in trouble in rural Ireland despite the very late IFA endorsement.

In urban Ireland they are just simply confused. St Anthony is having a hard time finding the Lisbon Treaty in the current debate. But if anyone is looking for hospital closures, school prefabs, housing prices and credit crunches he can help.

Fine Gael's public meeting this week at a hotel in Dublin reflected as much. Two-thirds of the audience questions focused on the Eurovision, conscription, a one-world government and, oddly, the record of Garret FitzGerald's 1982-1987 government.

Notably, there were several questions on immigration, including: "If we can't have Donegal tweed caps in An Garda Síochána, why should we have the turban?"

At one point, George Hook, who was chairing the event, felt it necessary to remind the audience that the purpose of the evening's debate was the Lisbon Treaty.

Declan Ganley, chair of the anti-Lisbon group Libertas, spoke at the Ranelagh community centre the same evening at the same time (I admit to being a militant cyclist). "The political establishment are taking us for idiots," he said, and added: "There is arrogance in the political leadership."

This is the central difficulty for the Yes side and a fundamental challenge for Irish politics.

Those opposing the Lisbon Treaty are not perceived by the public as politicians, at least not in the traditional sense. This is not about a Yes or No vote on a European treaty but a Yes or No on the political establishment. Politics itself is on trial. Local, national, European

and presidential elections are essentially choices between different politicians. Referendums are a very different kettle of fish; they present the opportunity to vote against politics itself.

The political parties campaigning for Yes commanded almost 90 per cent of the vote in the 2007 general election. Yet in the midst of the wild confusion about abortion, euthanasia, foreign rule and the detention of three-year-old children, it appears that we do not believe the explanations by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the Greens and the Progressive Democrats.

What an incredible statement for an electorate to make. We do not trust those for whom we voted less than a year ago.

Trust is precious and cannot be bought, borrowed or sold. Once earned, it can only be given for free. Trust is fundamental to the development of a relationship; it is the recognition that a vote of confidence and a leap of faith has been taken.

Everyone possesses the ability to trust, but where a breach takes place the capacity to forgive can prove testing.

With only a week to polling day, public commentary is dominated by the former taoiseach's three-day stint at the Mahon tribunal. Bad timing for the Yes campaign.

The tribunal and the Lisbon Treaty have much in common. They concern the process and organisation of a democracy. Their complexity is complemented by their lengthy nature. They evoke apathy among the public.

Bertie Ahern's evidence was greeted with laughter on several occasions. It was uncomfortable to sit in the public gallery to witness such naked public cynicism.

That £8,000 in sterling came from "a few good wins over the years, including one or two successful bets in 1996" is perhaps a perfectly legitimate explanation by Ahern. Though at this stage the benefit of the doubt in the public's mind has long been exhausted.

The emperor has no clothes.

Public trust takes years to build yet collapses in a mere fraction of that time.

When public authority is eroded, belief in the integrity and capability of politics is undermined. We participate in democracy because we believe in politics. The elemental expression of trust is that of the vote. We vote because we are willing to trust. A low turnout or a No vote will be a reflection of the loss of trust in Irish public life.

St Anthony, St Anthony, please come around; public trust has been lost and needs to be found.