The people cannot be wrong, but may be misguided

Mon, Jun 16, 2008, 01:00

Voters, faced with the uncertainties of a changing world, dived under the blankets for safety and voted No, writes Tony Kinsella.

AS CHANCE would have it I was living EU success as the referendum results emerged. We were crossing a dynamic and regenerated Spain from Valencia to the Pyrenees on the superb, partly EU-financed, A-23 four-lane expressway. My poor grasp of the language of Cervantes made deciphering the radio news difficult, but EU regulation of roaming mobile phone charges made pestering friends affordable.

A sovereign people cannot be wrong, but they may be misguided.

Four voters from the Barrow and Nore valleys tipped Carlow-Kilkenny into the Yes camp (26,210 v 26,206). In neighbouring Tipperary North, 132 Shannon valley voters sealed a No decision (16,367 v 16,235). Deciphering the difference is neither obvious, nor easy.

A before and after Lisbon reality now exists for Ireland, the EU, and beyond. If some elements are clear, and many speculative, some winners and losers are easily identifiable.

The normal extremist arc from the ultra-right to the ultra-left probably achieved their usual 18 per cent anti-Europe score. Identifying and quantifying where the additional 35 per cent of No voters came from will occupy many for months to come.

Sinn Féin's campaign deftly restored some of its lost ground, allowing it to re-emerge as a force south of the Border. The Northern leaderships low profile during the referendum may just help it escape from the ultimate irony of succeeding only as a regional UK party.

Declan Ganley is not the first wealthy business figure to interest himself in politics. His Libertas vehicle has now sipped at the most potent of aphrodisiacs - success - and may well be back for more. His description of himself as a conservative with a small 'c', a practising Catholic and Fianna Fáil supporter, hints at a future smooth political pitch on the economic right.

However successful they may have been, neither Sinn Féin nor Libertas explain the result.

Many voters, faced with the uncertainties of a rapidly changing, and therefore menacing, world opted to dive under the blankets for safety and vote No. A failure of political leadership offered them few tools and little encouragement to do otherwise.

Neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael showed any understanding of basic politics, not to mention the European challenge.

Brian Cowen's stewardship of the nation and his party is off to a poor start, but he at least managed to carry his home constituency of Laois-Offaly. Enda Kenny's qualifications to lead the nation look extremely threadbare given his party's poor campaign and the massive two-to-one rejection of the treaty by Mayo voters.

Labour's Eamon Gilmore emerges enhanced from the fray, for he alone of the major party leaders showed any understanding of the challenge, and a more sure-footed grasp of the need for passion than many European leaders. Gilmore's Dún Laoghaire constituency recorded the highest Yes vote in the country.

Most Europeans feel comfortable with their nation states, even if 17 of the EU 28 did not exist a mere two centuries ago. The EU is something new in human experience, neither a nation nor a classic international organisation. If our nations are, in human terms, familiar family relationships, the EU is an adolescent romance.

It is not yet firmly established in our consciousness, its every advance must be argued with passion, with enthusiasm, with vision, with leadership.

If the project is passionate, its day-to-day reality is mundane, its debates consensual, its methods slow, careful and often boring.

It is the structural child of its nation-state parents, and the established method for nation states to conclude binding agreements remains the treaty. The EU needs to develop a new mechanisms for minor technical changes that do not automatically trigger full treaty negotiations.

Nations, including Ireland, normally ratify these agreements through their parliaments. An absence of political courage and imagination on the part of successive Dublin governments has resulted in Irish ratification of EU, though not other, treaties solely by referendum.

Having a referendum about rule-book changes smacks of political buck-passing. If our elected representatives want to pass the buck, the least that can be asked of them is that they rise to the occasion with passion, commitment and leadership. Our two major parties failed to offer any of the above, opting instead for bland management and abdicating responsibility for political argument to the neutral Referendum Commission.

The EU will continue with its existing treaties. The other 26 member states will most likely ratify Lisbon, whose strengths and weaknesses lie in its largely technical nature. It provides mechanisms to implement decisions already taken and approved by the union as a whole, including the Irish electorate.

The inadequate Nice Treaty established, for example, that all 27 member states will not have a member of every commission. Lisbon offers a rotation system. EU members could agree to operate such a system on a de facto basis.

The young European project has survived many crises, and will doubtless traverse many more, yet it works surprising well. One element of its consensual success is that it threatens nobody, while empowering all.

European rulings on the free movement of players and the re-transmission of major matches (agreed under the Maastricht treaty) have created the world's most successful and exciting football club championships. These happily co-exist with the current Euro 2008 competition, where national teams, with all their tribal pageant, entertainingly compete.

We are embarked on a period of radical and challenging global change, and the EU is a vital tool and an essential safety cover for our small nation in these choppy waters.

In voting to dive under the blankets, Irish voters may well have lit the fuse that could eventually blow away either those very blankets, or the political leaderships whose failure drove them to hide there in the first place.

For all our sakes, I hope it's the latter.