Taking on the big boys

The Saturday Profile: The deeply conservative Justin Barrett is the ambitious leader of the No to Nice Campaign

The Saturday Profile: The deeply conservative Justin Barrett is the ambitious leader of the No to Nice Campaign. He played a role in swaying the last referendum in favour ofa No vote. But has he the power to do it again?

Pay more attention, next time you purchase a hamburger, to that guy behind the counter. He just might have a say in the future of Europe. Justin Barrett, who once worked in a Supermac's fast-food outlet, is seen by his admirers as the man who swung the last Nice referendum and they believe he may swing the current one as well.

Described as "a small man with vaulting ambition", the 31-year-old Barrett is the public relations officer and leader of the No to Nice Campaign. Despite its all-embracing title, this organisation is only one faction among the anti-Nice forces, albeit the most consistently active.

All through the summer, when the liberals and lefties were taking their holidays in Brittany or Bordeaux, Barrett and his youthful followers were busy putting up posters and holding public meetings around the country to spread the anti-Nice message.


These were the same people who came up with the most effective slogan of the last campaign, "You will lose! Money. Power. Influence". While the Yes side dithered, Barrett's brigade were plastering the country with their eyecatching red-and-black poster.

They haven't had it all their own way this time. Their new slogans, "A 2nd Chance to be 2nd Class" and "You Still Lose!" lack the same impact. A portrait of a man with a gun to his head has misfired, so to speak, arousing too much controversy to make it effective.

Whereas the factions on the No side rubbed along without too much friction last time, now they are divided. Sinn Féin, the Greens and various socialist groups have taken their distance from Barrett's people, because of the manner in which the No to Nice Campaign highlighted the immigration issue. When Anthony Coughlan, intellectual powerhouse of Irish Euroscepticism, shared platforms with Barrett, former left-wing and liberal associates were not best pleased.

Barrett himself cares nothing for the Left, who have no role to play in promoting the political agenda that he favours. He and his supporters seek to fill a vacuum in Irish political life, providing political representation for those he describes as "conservative-minded".

This constituency is strongly and dogmatically anti-abortion and adheres to religious values and attitudes which are now considered old-fashioned, but would have been the norm until the late 1950s. In the past they would have found a home in catch-all parties such as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but with the increasing secularisation of Irish society and the spread of liberal attitudes among the political class, these people no longer have a flag to rally round.

Could Barrett be the leader they seek? He has some political baggage that could alienate the conservative-minded people he seeks to influence. The No to Nice Campaign operates out of the Youth Defence headquarters in Capel Street, Dublin. Barrett has been involved with this militant anti-abortion group for many years

Youth Defence is a liberal nightmare. In many ways it is a reverse image of militant groups on the Left, the Socialist Workers' Party with Bibles. Pickets, direct action, aggressive campaigning are its hallmark and it has a propensity for picketing politicians' homes. In April, 1999, Barrett was fined £100 for obstructing a garda at a Youth Defence anti-abortion rally in Dublin: he got the Probation Act on appeal and still protests his innocence.

Who is this young man whose presence on our political scene alarms and angers so many people?

He was born in Cork city in 1971, fostered when he was two and adopted at the age of five by a family in Borrisokane, Co Tipperary.

Barrett was his mother's family name and the one on his birth certificate, but his adoptive family's name was Slevin, so for years he was known as "Barrett Slevin", as though Barrett were a Christian name. He eventually opted for Barrett, and dropped the Slevin.

He attended Borrisokane vocational school and later Athlone Regional Technical College, where he took a diploma in business studies. He went on to study accountancy but has only taken about half of the required examinations.

Politically, he was attracted to Young Fine Gael, but left because of what he perceived as the cynicism of the main political parties. He ran for office in the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) but dropped out due to lack of campaign funds.

Eventually he found what he was looking for in the militant wing of the anti-abortion movement. Barrett was impressed by the "genuine sincerity" of Youth Defence: "They said what they meant and meant what they said." He has worked for the group full-time since 1999. When Youth Defence members reach 28, they "graduate" to the Mother and Child Campaign, which should definitely not be confused with the Mother and Child Scheme of the late Noël Browne.

An early role-model for Barrett was the American Christian right-winger, Ralph Reed. At a private meeting in Washington DC in 1994, Reed told him that demonstrations and rallies were all very well, but it was your ability to affect public opinion and the results at the ballot box that persuaded politicians to adopt your agenda.

Referendums are almost a way of life with Barrett and, in between the two jousts over Nice, he took part in the abortion poll, ironically allying with the Left to defeat the Government's proposal, which he regarded as too liberal. He previously opposed the introduction of divorce.

The No to Nice Campaign is planning to spend about €100,000 in the referendum campaign, four times the Labour Party figure. This comes from private donations and through ads in Catholic newspapers, according to the campaign. Allegations during the last referendum of funding from fundamentalist groups abroad were not backed up with evidence.

Barrett rejects out of hand a series of allegations contained in an article in the Sunday Mirror which sought to link him with far-right groups in Italy and Germany. It highlighted the loyalist background of a leading figure in Precious Life Scotland, and described it as a sister organisation of Youth Defence. Barrett said legal proceedings would be taken against the newspaper.

Barrett is also the author of a 200-page book entitled, The National Way Forward! One reviewer wrote, "Barrett's vision is that of an 'Ireland, united, Gaelic and free' based upon Catholic social doctrine and divorced from the liberal capitalist dogma which the author bitterly castigates throughout his work." Copies of this privately-printed volume are scarce, but are currently in great demand - especially from his opponents in the Nice referendum who hope it will give them political ammunition they need to puncture Barrett's balloon.