The second Irish vote on the Lisbon Treaty: same text, different context.

September 4, 2009


Déjà vu, some would say. Different season, same reason. On June 13th 2008, in keeping with our constitutional obligations, the Irish people were asked to go to the polls to ratify the Lisbon Treaty by means of a referendum, rather than via parliamentary debate. ‘Lisbon' is a treaty consisting of amendments to the two main EU Treaties – the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The Treaty has to be ratified by all of the member States of the EU so it could not be implemented in Europe without an Irish “Yes”. Well, we said “No” (53.4% against, 46.6. for, with a 53% turnout of the electorate). Commentators believe that much of the motivation for the rejection was to give an unpopular Government a drubbing. But, unhappy with the people's decision, the Government, with the agreement of the Opposition, has set October 2nd next as the date for another try. The hope among the establishment – and 96% of the Parliament – is that the Irish electorate changes its mind.

In terms of its core content, it's hard for anyone to get excited about Lisbon. This is a procedural Treaty. Its intention is to streamline operations and ensure that the EU, following its enlargement, works more efficiently. A weighty tome with a wearisome tone. The 2008 campaign was a vicious yet extremely engaging one. Many would argue a campaign characterised more by what was not in the treaty than what was in it. The “No” campaign successfully set the agenda from the beginning, multiple seeds of doubt were set in the electorate's mind early on, and all acknowledge that the “No” side ran a vastly superior operation on the ground and, particularly, in the media. It is commonly accepted by both Yes and No camps that the star performer of the last Lisbon campaign was Declan Ganley, founder and Chairman of Libertas – whose absence from the current campaign is notable.

So where are we now? Where is Europe? The Lisbon Treaty to be voted on by the Irish electorate next month is word for word the same as it was before. The text hasn't changed – but the context has changed utterly. The economic environment creates a new and much more serious backdrop for the voters. Ireland and the Irish economic success story is utterly connected to Europe. It is only in very recent years that Ireland shifted from being a beneficiary of European funds to becoming contributor to the Union.

What has changed is a series of political and legal ‘guarantees' that the Government negotiated with the other members of the EU since the defeat in 2008. These guarantees appear as ‘protocols' appended to the Treaty. They are effectively commitments to Ireland from the other member states on areas such as the right to life, education and the family, taxation, defence and neutrality, as well as a Solemn Declaration of the 27 Member States confirming the high importance attaching to workers' rights and social policy. All of these issues came up in the last campaign and this mechanism of ‘protocols' – for which there is precedent, has been proposed to reassure the electorate on these issues. One concrete change that has occurred is the confirmation that all Member States would retain the right to nominate a member to the European Commission – that's the ‘cabinet' that runs the EU on a day to day basis. Those advocating a “No” vote in this campaign claim that these guarantees are mere political promises and, as such, can be reneged upon at any time.

The issue of an unpopular Government hasn't gone away, though. There is a real risk that October's vote could still become another referendum on the Government's popularity. One political commentator today remarked, tongue firmly in cheek, that “the best service this Government may do for the EU was to vigorously oppose the Lisbon Treaty – that way the electorate would probably vote for it!”

If Lisbon fails for a second time, the current Irish Government and its leader, Taoiseach Brain Cowen, could face an immediate General Election, with a distinct possibility of Fianna Fáil being ousted from power after 12 years. Fianna Fáil and Cowen are at historical lows in terms of opinion poll ratings. 85% of the electorate are dissatisfied with them. The leading Opposition Party Fine Gael has said this referendum should be about Ireland's future, not Brian Cowen's.

This time around the “Yes” vote is not relying exclusively on the politicians as what look like two fairly significant civil society groups have entered the fray. The “No” side will have to manage without Mr Ganley or Libertas, although leading lights from Sinn Féin are there, a new group called Coir have emerged as well as a newly-elected socialist MEP (Member of the European Parliament) Joe Higgins – a former member of the Irish parliament well known for his pithy commentary and passion.

Respective campaigns have kicked off in earnest this week. In subsequent blogs, we will post images of the array of posters that currently decorate our public lampposts. While an eyesore and an environmental hazard, they are certainly entertaining.

Meanwhile, the latest Irish Times / TNS MRBI poll has shown support for the Lisbon Treaty declining over the summer. The poll's findings make for fascinating reading and you can read more on this in The Irish Times.