A crucial referendum


THE REASON why referendums have in the past put the fear of God into our governments is not, as some would have us believe, simply that they fear accountability to the sovereign people. Rather, that, as is their right, the people are wont to answer not the question put before them, but any other one preoccupying them at the time. Is the Government fighting Ireland’s corner hard enough? Is the bailout unfair? Is the EU run by Berlin? Is unemployment excessive? . . .

Yesterday in the Dáil, responding to Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s announcement of a referendum on the EU fiscal treaty, Opposition deputies from Sinn Féin to the ULA were already lining up to redefine the issue as “austerity”, the “iniquitous bailout”, raising again the ghosts of Nice I and Lisbon I, rallying the inveterate naysayers. The “Peoples opportunity to reject austerity at the ballot box”, was how Socialist MEP Paul Murphy described the battle ahead. To its credit Fianna Fáil was not playing their game. It will support the treaty.

The Taoiseach rightly cast it as an essential building block in Ireland’s recovery, a set of necessary disciplines for all the euro countries to which we had already committed ourselves, and which will be good for Ireland and the euro. No talk of regretting the necessity for the referendum process – that would give the wrong impression – but he spoke with an enthusiastic conviction that the people, when the case is made, will do the right thing.

What he did not say, presumably fearful that such comments would be caricatured as moral blackmail, is that rejection would mean opening an appalling vista for this country. Because the treaty does not require all participating states to ratify it before coming into operation, an Irish No would leave this State behind as the rest of the euro zone moved ahead with closer integration. Ireland might remain formally a euro member, but, critically, outside the central decisionmaking core that has in effect already become the EU’s advance guard. Most importantly, a No would deprive Ireland of further access to the bailout mechanisms and cash, the protective shield which is crucial to our standing in the markets and our recovery. This is not a moment for giving the Government a bloody nose on the basis that we’ll put it right second time round.

Whether or not this treaty was designed by EU leaders explicitly to avoid the eventuality of a referendum, as the Taoiseach has strenuously denied, the fact is they haven’t made a great fist of it. Perhaps, however, in the circumstances there was no other way. The Taoiseach explained that the Attorney General’s advice to the Cabinet was “that, as this treaty is a unique instrument, outside the EU treaty architecture, on balance, a referendum is required to ratify it.” Once British prime minister David Cameron blocked any EU-based treaty at December’s summit, the semi-detached format of this treaty was decided. And, it appears, a referendum became inevitable because the limited constitutional leeway for EU treaties would not be available.