‘After all the money you got. Ungrateful bastards’

DUBLIN: Kevin Rooney reports on the Irish elite’s fury at the ‘unspeakable’ mass who dared to reject the Treaty.

Kevin Rooney

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From the minute it became clear that the Irish people had said ‘No’ to the Lisbon Treaty, Irish politicians and commentators lined up to spew bile at the electorate.

Uneducated, racist, ungrateful, parochial, dysfunctional: those are just some of the insults hurled at the 53 per cent of voters who rejected Lisbon. Swearing is not normally allowed in Ireland’s quality papers, but an exception was made after Thursday’s referendum. The Irish Times quoted one Brussels official as saying: ‘Ungrateful bastards. After all the money you got.’

Leo Varadkar, a leading member of the Irish party Fine Gael, accused the ‘No’ campaign of exploiting the xenophobia of the voters. The Irish Times wheeled out Professor Richard Sinnott of University College Dublin, an ‘expert’ on the Irish voter, who explained that the Irish people were somehow incapable of understanding what was at stake in the referendum. Apparently this is a result of Irish people’s low level of education and their lack of confidence in their own ability to grasp ‘complex issues’.

The breathtakingly elitist view that the ‘No’ camp was basically too stupid to understand the Treaty and its implications was expressed everywhere in the media coverage of the result. Fintan O’Toole, an assistant editor at the Irish Times and respected intellectual, wrote of his despair at hearing one Galway woman explain on daytime radio why she voted ‘No’. ‘I got a bit of information that if I voted “Yes” my sons would be drafted into the army, so I voted “No”… Our sons are too good-looking for the army’, she said. O’Toole argued that ‘the absurdity of the woman’s fears make them almost impossible to address’, echoing the elite sentiment that the concerns of the ‘No’ voters are simply too irrational, inaccurate and downright stupid to bother engaging with.

The Irish elite is disgusted by the ‘No’ vote because the electorate effectively voted against the recommendations of the entire establishment. This was noted in Ireland’s biggest-selling paper, the Irish Independent: ‘[The “No” vote] was made contrary to the urgings of the government, all the mainstream political parties, the business establishment, most of the trade union movement, and a significant part of the academic community and other respected elements of civil society.’ Yet instead of examining the paucity and patronising nature of its own agenda, which a majority of Irish people rejected, Ireland’s establishment is focusing on the alleged stupidity and wilfulness of the electorate.

In the run-up to the vote, and after it, many commentators came close to saying that a referendum was more democracy than the people of Ireland deserved. Commentators vied with each other to come up with the most derogatory terms possible to describe the ‘No’ campaign. Writing two days after the rejection of Lisbon, James Downey spoke for many when he said in the Irish Independent: ‘Never in the history of unholy alliances has a coalition ranging from the impossible to the unspeakable inflicted on the Irish establishment such a smashing blow… All of them [the “No” campaigners] should have been swatted away weeks ago by the forces of the establishment.’

Reducing voters to the kind of insects that can be ‘swatted away’ shows how serious and hysterical the Irish elite’s assault on the electorate is becoming.

In truth, the referendum was democracy in action. Yes, there was a strange alliance of interests in the ‘No’ camp, and of course there were some reactionary politics on display. It is probably true that some ‘No’ voters may not have understood the Treaty. But none of this detracts from the fact that – after debating the Treaty in bars, on the streets, on national radio, everywhere – a majority of the Irish electorate traipsed to the ballot booths to say that they were unconvinced by the arguments of their political leaders, and they would not be swayed by threats and insults from the chattering classes.

The Irish establishment clearly sees a majority of the electorate as ‘ignorant’ – ignorant of the importance of the Treaty, and of Ireland’s role in the EU. In fact, voters took a positive stand against a Treaty that is written in the most complex, legalistic, technocratic and bureaucratic language. As it happens, almost everyone in Ireland is pro-Europe; they see Ireland as being ‘part of Europe’. But they strongly object to being taken for granted by political leaders who made no effort whatsoever to translate a technocratic document into a compelling political case for passing the Lisbon Treaty or expanding EU institutions.

Indeed, while politicians mocked the voters for being thick about the Treaty, Ireland’s new Taoiseach (prime minster) openly admitted that he hadn’t read all of its 275 pages, while the Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) struggled to answer questions about how many European commissioners Ireland has. One of these commissioners, Charlie McCreevy, admitted that ‘no sane person would bother to read [the Treaty] because of the technocratic, near incomprehensible language of every sentence, clause, paragraph and page’.

Instead of addressing the many political issues raised by the ‘No’ campaign, Ireland’s political leaders have shown nothing but contempt for the electorate. When the referendum campaign started, politicians thought it would be enough to plaster the country with huge posters showing their smiling faces next to the word ‘YES!’, as if that would be enough to convince the voters. They have paid a very high price for their impoverished view of democracy, and for undermining the self-respect and nous of the voters.

Ironically, at the weekend many commentators turned their wrath on the one person who seemed to have grasped – too late in the day – that there was a political fight to be fought on the Lisbon Treaty: the new Taoiseach, Brian Cowen. As I reported on spiked last week, Cowen decided to stage one last fight for a ‘Yes’ vote by taking to the streets and farms and pubs to argue with voters. Yesterday, a comment piece on the front page of the Sunday Independent slated him for it: ‘That Cowen seemed to think a referendum was won not in the media but by traipsing around shopping centres and country towns looking in his shirtsleeves like an unmade bed didn’t help matters.’

This sums up everything you need to know about Ireland’s disgusted elite: they would rather stay in their little media world, far away from messy public arenas where people were debating the Treaty. No wonder they lost, arrogant bastards. Ireland’s political leaders have been given a lesson in democracy by the people – it is a shame that so few of them are in lesson-learning mode.

Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school.

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