Masters of our fate


‘I AM the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

Taoiseach Brian Cowen has described today's decision on the Lisbon Treaty as a defining moment and as one of the most important decisions in our recent political history. No campaigners like Declan Ganley and Joe Higgins, from a different perspective, share his perception of the decision as a landmark moment.

It may be about an imperfect, technical treaty that even its strongest supporters find difficult to love, but it is also about far more. Today Ireland makes, for right or wrong, a choice about our place in Europe. For Yes campaigners it’s a momentous choice about full engagement, an essential brick in our recovery, or a semi-detached relationship and the perils of uncertainty. What they see as crucial, democratising integration, equipping the EU’s institutions for the future, No campaigners believe transforms the EU qualitatively into a superstate. Key elements of national sovereignty are critically undermined, they say. Either way, what we decide today matters deeply.

The Irish Constitution, unlike those of our partners, confers on citizens the right and the responsibility – even a moral obligation – to vote on amendments to it and so on European treaties which change it. Doing so gives all of us real ownership of our political system. But we must exercise that right. We owe it to fellow citizens, as, whatever the majority on the day, the real political legitimacy of a decision to change the Constitution – or reject change – will depend on the extent to which the vote is a genuine expression of the majority of citizens. Turnout matters. Every vote matters.

And every non-vote matters. In the first vote on the Nice Treaty, in 2001, barely a third of the electorate (34.8 per cent) bothered to cast ballots, the lowest turnout of any referendum on Europe. The decision to reject the treaty was reversed a year later on a turnout of just 48.5 per cent – what became clear in an analysis of that result, however, was that few actually changed their minds in between. The increased vote which swung the decision was overwhelmingly from those who had not bothered to vote the first time. In effect, by not voting, whatever their intentions, they had voted No.

And, yes, we are being asked to vote a second time. But there is nothing wrong with that, nothing undemocratic, no need to apologise. The reassurances given to us by EU partners, the “guarantees” on abortion, neutrality, taxation, and on our right to retain a commissioner, change the context of the vote for those who feared our position on those issues had been put in jeopardy. Some still believe that the treaty is a threat to our interests, and will vote accordingly. But, what matters, first or second time round, is that the people decide.

Democracy is a living, breathing idea, not a paper right. Voting is the essential oxygen to its blood, and the system we take too easily for granted atrophies unless you, the voter, use it. Referendums are our own valued special way of directly expressing popular control over constitutional change. Affirm that right. Vote today.