A good start would have been half the work for Yes campaign


In delaying its campaign the Government ignored the lessons of the first Nice Treaty referendum, writes Garret FitzGerald

THE REFERENDUM was lost by a majority greater than anyone anticipated - and one that was also more class-divided than any other.

In the light of the experience of the first Nice referendum in 2001, when 18 per cent of voters succeeded in blocking temporarily that European initiative, no one could reasonably have expected that this latest European treaty would secure easy acceptance.

However skilfully Irish interests were protected in the course of this negotiation, and however strong the case might be for ratifying an EU treaty designed to make the Union more effective, more open, and more democratic, a positive referendum outcome was going to require an effective Government-led campaign, starting in good time, and carried through with conviction and professionalism.

That is not what we got.

In this column on January 5th I called for an early start to a campaign that would put forward the positive side of such matters as our engagement in peacekeeping activities both in parts of Europe and elsewhere. This needed to be done well before Sinn Féin and its allies started playing, for the seventh time, their cracked record on what they call "EU militarism".

Unhappily, the Government ignored the lesson of the first Nice referendum in 2001. It postponed until mid-May the initiation of its Lisbon Treaty campaign, failing even to announce until very late the date of the vote.

So, during the early months of this year the anti-treaty forces of the two extremes - a lethal combination of people reflecting right-wing US military and neo-con antipathy to the EU, (seen by them as a threat to Nato), together with our own domestic anti-US left-wingers - were given free rein to mislead voters into opposing the treaty on a whole range of irrelevant, misleading, or false grounds.

By the time the Government campaign was launched, a mere four weeks before referendum day, those supporting treaty ratification had already been skilfully placed on the defensive.

The Government, together with its Opposition and civic society allies, then had to concentrate all its efforts on seeking to refute a multiplicity of totally false claims by treaty opponents - claims which unhappily had been allowed to lodge in the minds of less well-informed voters. The result was that the positive case in favour of ratification never received as much attention as it should have done.

That debate was complicated by the abuse of the referendum process by some sectoral and local interests, seeking to twist the Government's arm over issues irrelevant to the Lisbon Treaty - ranging from the WTO trade negotiation to the future role of Roscommon hospital. Pádraig Walshe led his IFA members and supporters up the anti-Lisbon hill, but, unlike the Duke of York, has clearly failed to lead many of them down again - thus forfeiting the goodwill that our farmers will so much need in the forthcoming CAP mid-term negotiations.

This referendum has demonstrated a huge disconnect between an important element of the electorate and the political parties for which they vote. To anyone who values the representative democratic system, this is deeply disturbing, for it clearly reflects a potentially corrosive lack of trust in the political structures of our State.

The preference shown in this referendum for the views of populist elements outside the normal democratic process argues a deep need for political reform. Institutional reform is always difficult, because it is strenuously resisted by the powerful interests who benefit from the status quo. But when the reform needed relates to the political system itself, it becomes almost impossible to achieve.

I do not have the impression that our politicians reflect much, if at all, on the recent loss of confidence in and respect for them. This insensitivity reflects the fact that, in a political system as devoted to clientelism as is ours, elected representatives tend to judge their public standing by the narrow criterion of whether individuals continue to come to them for assistance with personal problems arising from their often fraught dealings with the bureaucratic system.

But while this process continues, both those who seek mediation by their politicians and - perhaps more so - the much greater number who do not, may be losing trust in the integrity of those whom they elect to office.

I believe most of our politicians fail to recognise the negative impact on public opinion of evidence given to tribunals on the venality of a minority of their colleagues, and of the deterioration during the final quarter of the 20th century in politicians' attitudes to donations.

Nor does there seem to be any recognition among politicians of the parallel impact of the scale of increases in political salaries, the introduction of new allowances, and the proliferation of paid positions for TDs as Ministers of State or as chairmen or vice-chairmen of Oireachtas committees.

These developments, which the courtesy of Irish voters prevents them from raising in their personal contacts with politicians, have, I believe, radically changed the dynamic of Irish politics. Thus, when it comes to real political issues like the Lisbon Treaty, a disillusioned electorate has preferred to listen to voices from the margins, such as that of Sinn Féin (for whose candidates they have so far been largely unwilling to cast their votes), and of self-promoting businessmen operating US-oriented agendas.

When these things happen, we need to start worrying about our democratic system. As for our relationship with the EU, the fact that despite the Irish vote some major countries, including Eurosceptic Britain, intend to continue with ratification means that Ireland, so long seen as a positive member of the Union, is going to find itself under huge pressure in the months ahead, to which it is ill-placed to respond.