Article23 October 2002

A not-so Nice referendum
In Ireland's vote on Europe, democracy lost out.

by Brendan O'Neill

'Nice one, Ireland' proclaimed a huge headline in the Irish Independent on 21 October 2002, after 62.89 percent of those who voted in the Irish referendum on European expansion said 'Yes' to the Nice Treaty (1).

Irish voters said 'No' to Nice in June 2001, when they were first asked to ratify the treaty that will allow 12 new, mostly Eastern European states to join the European Union. But this time around 'we came to our senses', says one Irish journalist, congratulating the Irish people for 'being generous to the people of Eastern Europe'. According to Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern, the result was nothing short of 'historic' (2).

Across Europe, politicians and commentators have been singing Ireland's praises. The French paper La Figaro said a heartfelt thanks for a 'clear and massive yes' (3). Austria's Die Presse reckons that 'little Ireland' is lucky its voters said yes, as Ireland has avoided 'becoming Europe's outcast and may continue to play its part' (4).

'On behalf of the Hungarian people, I congratulate every Irish citizen who voted responsibly', said an over-emotional Hungarian President Ferenc Madl (5) - though he didn't spell out what he thought of those who voted 'irresponsibly'.

What a difference a year and a 'Yes' make. When Irish voters rejected Nice in 2001 they were lambasted for being 'ungrateful', 'ignorant of the issues' and 'anti-European'. President of the European Commission Romano Prodi threatened to ignore the Irish vote and push full steam-ahead with Nice anyway, while one European commentator criticised 'Ireland's backwardness'.

Now, Irish voters are praised for having made the 'right decision' and for showing themselves to be 'good Europeans' (6).

According to Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Ireland's 'Yes' vote is 'evidence of the European Union's internal democracy' (7). In fact, the Nice Treaty Referendum Take Two was an anti-democratic farce, in which voters were effectively blackmailed into voting 'Yes'. Behind the Europe-wide praise and congratulations, Irish voters have been treated like a stage army for decisions already taken by the European elite.

The referendum was premised on the idea that Irish voters made a grave error first time around. On 7 June 2001, with a measly turnout of 32.9 percent (one of the lowest ever for an Irish referendum), 54 percent said 'No' to Nice while 46 percent said 'Yes'.

But instead of being seen as a case of The People Have Spoken, the result was looked upon as a case of The People Have Screwed Up. No sooner had the ballots been counted than Irish politicians were plotting to 'revisit the electorate' in order to get the 'right result'. 'We've got to go back and get a Yes', said a member of the Irish parliament (8).

Leaders of the European Union (EU) and the European Commission (EC) were similarly unimpressed by Ireland's fickle voters. The Nice Treaty may require ratification by all 15 EU member states, but EU leaders threatened to ignore the Irish people and forge ahead with expansion.

In a joint statement issued in the days after Irish voters rejected Nice, EU president Goran Persson and EC president Romano Prodi said: 'The member states and the Commission will pursue the enlargement negotiations with undiminished vigour and determination, in line with our firm commitment given to the applicant countries.'

European ministers were careful to pay lip service to the 'will of the Irish people' - while pointing out that 'the process of ratification' would continue 'in accordance with the planned timetable'. In short, the will of the Irish people would just be blanked. So much for European democracy.

Others expressed their disgust with Irish voters less politely. 'The best pupils of the European class have spat in the soup', said French newspaper Liberation. 'The blow is all the more treacherous in that it comes from a country that owes its new wealth to Europe', it went on, wondering how 'the Irish could be so ungrateful' (9). Any notion that voting was about making independent choices rather than sucking up to Europe or the 'men with the money' seemed to have been lost in the wake of Ireland's 'No' vote.

The Irish elite reacted furiously to the result. According to BBC Newsnight's Ben Geoghagen, Irish leaders were 'so ashamed when the country voted "No" to Nice' that they decided to pull out all the stops in order to get a '"Yes" next time' (10).

Bertie Ahern even proposed banning opinion polls in the week before all elections in Ireland, so that voters wouldn't be swayed by 'powerful propaganda'. As one commentator pointed out, Ahern and co showed 'plain contempt for the ordinary person': '[T]he political parties now want to deny us freedom of knowledge, by trying to ban opinion polls one week before elections, because, they claim, the media are always harassing them' (11).

As well as demonstrating a 'plain contempt' for voters and democracy, the proposed ban captured the Irish elite's lack of conviction in its own argument. It would far rather shut down all debate than have to put a convincing case in favour of the Nice Treaty.

In the end, Irish leaders reneged on their plan to ban opinion polls - largely because members of the Irish parliament convinced them that it would be 'embarrassing' for the government, which had suffered enough embarrassment at the hands of the stupid voters. Instead, the government decided to ignore the 'No' result and simply call another referendum in an attempt to override the voters' decision - the final insult to the democratic process.

It was on this basis that Saturday's sequel to the referendum took place - but this time, Irish and European leaders were quick to warn Irish voters to make the 'right choice'…or else.

'EU warns Ireland over Nice Treaty', said a BBC News headline on 23 September 2002, after the EU's commissioner for enlargement 'warned Irish voters that a second rejection of [the] Nice Treaty would be interpreted as closing the door on Eastern Europe'. According to the BBC, 'the warning to Ireland not to jeopardise enlargement is the strongest yet given by the EU' (12).

Other European officials took the opportunity of the referendum to remind Irish voters how much they had benefited from the EU ('30billion Euros since 1973', said one pro-Nice poster) - and how they would continue to benefit in the future following a 'Yes' vote.

The Irish authorities went for moral blackmail over financial blackmail in their determination to win a 'Yes' vote. Junior foreign minister Tom Kitt was sent around the state to convince people to back the Nice Treaty, telling one audience that what is at stake in this election is 'nothing less than their reputation as good Europeans' (13).

'I was deeply ashamed of the result in the last referendum', Irish politician Brian Lenihan told voters. 'It didn't do us credit as a country at all', he said, calling on the Irish to do the 'morally just thing'. As the BBC's Ben Geoghagen asked, 'In attempting to be good Europeans, have the Irish government turned into bad democrats, where only one answer will do?' (14).

In the run-up to the referendum, some British commentators could barely conceal their contempt for those Irish voters thinking of saying 'No' again. 'If Ireland selfishly votes against EU enlargement, it will convulse Europe and be treated as a xenophobic pariah', warned a shrill Polly Toynbee in the Guardian (15).

Toynbee said that the world's love of all things Irish ('this tiny population has nurtured such a wealth of great writers') wouldn't last if voters rejected Nice for a second time running. '[I]f they deny this chance to others', she wrote, 'it might come as a shock to the Irish to discover that overnight the rest of Europe finds them a lot less likeable' (16).

Under the headline 'Those ungrateful Irish' a week before the referendum, The Economist's Charlemagne reminded Irish voters that 'when Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973, the country's income per head was about 60 percent of the community's average; it is now around 120 percent' (17) - rehashing the argument from 2001 that Ireland should do as Europe says and stop being so ungrateful.

The message from EU leaders, Irish politicians and media commentators was clear - the Irish had no excuse to vote 'No' in this referendum. Deputy Irish prime minister Mary Harney even claimed that having two referendums on the Nice Treaty within 18 months of each other was 'useful for voters', as it meant they had more chance to 'debate all the intricate details and issues involved'.

Is she serious? Irish voters were given the 'choice' between doing the morally right thing by accepting the Nice Treaty or being seen as ungrateful, backward losers by rejecting it again. European and Irish leaders made Ireland's referendum into a black-and-white choice with no room for anything approaching political debate.

Some have expressed shock that, even though the world's eyes were on Ireland over the weekend, still the turnout was pitiful. Forty-eight percent voted in the referendum - more than the 32 percent who voted in 2001, but still less than half the population. 'Even when politicians do everything they can to win people over', said one Irish paper, 'some people can't be bothered to vote' (18).

There's another way of looking at this: why are nearly half of Ireland's voters willing to vote in a farcical election that treats them like naughty schoolchildren and offers them no choice at all?

Brendan O'Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) 'Nice one, Ireland', Irish Independent, 21 October 2002

(2) Irish result in quotes, BBC News, 21 October 2002

(3) European press relieved at Irish vote, BBC News, 21 October 2002

(4) European press relieved at Irish vote, BBC News, 21 October 2002

(5) European press relieved at Irish vote, BBC News, 21 October 2002

(6) Irish referendum, BBC News, 21 October 2002

(7) Irish result in quotes, BBC News, 21 October 2002

(8) 'After the referendum', Irish Independent, 28 June 2002

(9) Irish no stuns European press, BBC News, 9 June 2002

(10) Irish referendum, BBC News, 21 October 2002

(11) The Word Factory, Tim Houlihan, 4 July 2001

(12) EU warns Ireland over Nice Treaty, BBC News, 23 September 2002

(13) Irish referendum, BBC News, 21 October 2002

(14) Irish referendum, BBC News, 21 October 2002

(15) End of the Irish affair, Polly Tonybee, Guardian, 18 October 2002

(16) End of the Irish affair, Polly Tonybee, Guardian, 18 October 2002

(17) 'Those ungrateful Irish', The Economist, 19 October 2002

(18) Irish Times, 21 October 2002

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