No room for complacency

 

THE REFERENDUM on the Lisbon Treaty is likely to be carried on October 2nd, in spite of a slow erosion of public support, according to the latest Irish Times/TNS mrbi opinion poll. A four-point increase in the No vote has been partially offset by a rise of two points in the Yes vote, with 18 per cent remaining undecided. On the basis of those figures, it is unlikely that a gap of 15 points can be closed within the coming week.

The findings of the poll will come as a considerable relief to members of the Government and the main Opposition parties who have campaigned in a more organised and assertive fashion on this occasion, particularly in relation to postering and the promotion of EU benefits. Their efforts were considerably enhanced by the involvement of well-known personalities from business, sporting and cultural backgrounds who went out of their way to promote Ireland’s best interests in Europe.

It would be a mistake to become complacent at this stage. What momentum there is, lies with the No camp. And, given the deep unpopularity of the Coalition Government, an unforeseen controversy, badly handled, could have disastrous consequences. At this point in the first referendum campaign, a majority had decided to reject the Lisbon Treaty.

This time, a more focused and committed campaign by Fine Gael and the Labour Party has ensured that majorities of their supporters will vote Yes. Fianna Fáil and Green Party voters now strongly support the treaty. And the same holds true for farmers, following clear advice from the Irish Farmers’ Association and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association.

A range of public concerns which led to the Lisbon Treaty being rejected last year have been addressed in a painstaking and comprehensive fashion by Taoiseach Brian Cowen through negotiations with other EU states. Ireland will retain its commissioner. And legally binding assurances have been provided in relation to fiscal matters and military independence. The fact that such commitments were found to be necessary points to a lack of public confidence in, or understanding of, the EU project. This alienation is most apparent among the poorest section of society, where a majority remains opposed to the referendum. Young people are the most sceptical.

Passage of the Lisbon Treaty should enhance Ireland’s standing in Brussels at a time when we require the goodwill of EU institutions as we reshape our economy and restructure and recapitalise our financial institutions. It would represent an important first step in a political process that may span the passage of the National Asset Management Agency legislation and the introduction of a tough December budget. The co-operation and commitment of the major parties in the referendum campaign holds out the prospect of further collaboration on issues of national importance. In that regard, there is a responsibility on all concerned to adopt a measured approach to changes in Nama legislation and to the prospect of agreement on measures designed to bring the public finances back into equilibrium.