Bobby McDonagh: There’s nothing to fear from second Brexit referendum
Reruns of votes on Nice and Lisbon treaties have not undermined Irish faith in democracy
“Yes” campaigners celebrate after the Lisbon Treaty referendum, outside Dublin Castle on October 3rd, 2009. File photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
An insightful Spanish diplomat once suggested to me that the problem with a referendum was that it’s like inviting somebody to the cinema. If they say no, you don’t know whether it’s because they don’t like you or because they don’t want to see the movie.
This is essentially the dilemma that the UK is now grappling with. In 2016, did the British people understand what the referendum movie was? Or having seen only a misleading trailer, did they want to kick the establishment that had invited them along to see it?
There are arguments on both sides. The Brexiteers’ strongest argument is that they won. They can also point to the high turnout. The remainers legitimately ask whether 52 per cent of those who voted really supported the damaging Brexit options being dangled before them. They can also point to the mendacious and, in some respects, law-breaking leave campaigns.
Now the heart of the matter is whether the British people should be given the opportunity to vote again. Brexiteers argue that a second referendum would undermine people’s faith in democracy. Remainers argue precisely the opposite. The issue cannot be resolved by rational debate, still less by me. I can, however, offer an Irish perspective. Ireland has held second referendums on two EU treaties, Nice and Lisbon. The question relevant to the choice now faced by the British people is whether these re-consultations undermined the Irish people’s faith in democracy.
The idea is still put about that Brussels “told Ireland to vote until it got the right answer”. Although it suits Brexiteers and their tiny band of Irish supporters to maintain this fiction, it is untrue. On both occasions the decision to hold a second referendum in Ireland was an Irish one based on our own interests. What was clear to us after each negative vote was that, if we continued to block treaties in the negotiation of which we had been not only involved but influential, we would be committing ourselves to a massive loss of influence in the EU – and maybe even, unintentionally, setting ourselves on a path towards leaving. Our EU partners didn’t tell us this. They didn’t have to.
Ireland’s response to the situation in which it found itself was, in both cases, shaped by the Irish government and Dáil taking account of public concerns that had arisen during the referendum campaigns. Reassurances to address those concerns were developed and agreed with other member states. The questions to be put to the electorate were reframed. Second referendums were held. The Irish people, when asked again, said yes.
The Irish people’s faith in democracy remains very strong even if the inevitable imperfections of democracy might lead some of us to concur with Winston Churchill’s adage that it is “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. Our politics today are as vibrant as anything to be seen in Westminster, although not as febrile. Ireland’s politicians are as responsive to the public mood as their British counterparts, although more inclined these days to show leadership. Parliamentary debates tend to focus somewhat less exclusively on party political interests such as those that have shaped British government policy for some time. Nor has Ireland seen sustained political and media attacks on the foundations of our democracy including parliament, the courts and the public service.
The creativity and capacity of our political system to chart a way through the challenges we faced after the first Nice and Lisbon referendums has strengthened democracy and our people’s faith in it. It was in the end the people themselves, despite the argument that they had spoken and could never speak again, who resoundingly endorsed Ireland’s position at the heart of the European Union.
Today, the overwhelming majority of the Irish people support membership of the EU. If we had sidelined ourselves in Europe, on the sacred altar of democratic choices being irreversible, we would be poorer not only in our pockets and our influence. We would be poorer in our democracy.
Our British friends are reflecting on the somewhat uninspiring film choices available in the House of Commons multiplex; many now wonder whether they should have gone to the cinema at all. For those still open to calm reflection I humbly offer the Irish experience of second referendums. Allowing the people an opportunity to think again about important decisions that will affect their lives has, if anything, made our democracy stronger. – Guardian service
Bobby McDonagh was Ireland’s ambassador to the UK from 2009 to 2013