EU vote: the opposition will not be televised

Ireland’s scrapping of the equal airtime requirement ahead of the second Lisbon Treaty referendum diminishes debate.

Jason Walsh

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As Ireland approaches its second referendum on the constitutional changes that would allow parliament to ratify the Lisbon Treaty into law it has been announced that broadcasters will not have to give equal airtime to opposing sides in the referendum debate (1).

Michael O’Keeffe, chief executive of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI), explained that two changes have been made to guidelines issued for previous referendums. ‘Firstly, the guidelines clarify that there is no requirement to allocate an absolute equality of airtime to opposing sides of the referendum debate during editorial coverage’, said O’Keeffe. ‘Secondly, the guidelines clarify the requirement to ensure that the total time allocated to political party broadcasts will result in equal airtime being afforded to parties that support the referendum proposals and those that oppose them.’ Willie O’Reilly, chairman of Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, welcomed the changes, saying ‘This recognises in a formal way that being fair to all sides does not necessarily represent a 50 per cent division of airtime’ (2).

In practice, given that Irish officialdom and the chattering classes are desperate to see the treaty pass into law, these changes mean that the pro-treaty side will likely get much more airtime than those who oppose it. In the end, it seems a debate is only welcome as long as most people are saying the same thing.

Interestingly, this move comes not long after a report that excoriated RTÉ, Ireland’s state broadcaster, claiming its coverage of the previous Lisbon Treaty referendum in June 2008 was weighted heavily in favour of the ‘Yes’ campaign. The report noted that ‘on RTÉ’s leading news programmes from January 1 2008 to June 14 2008, 63 per cent of the contributors to news items which focused on the Lisbon Treaty were supporting a Yes vote’ (3).

So unlike last year’s referendum debate, which was only somewhat slanted, this time the vast majority of voices will speak out in support of the treaty, not because anyone has changed their minds, but simply because there are fewer people able to stand up publicly and say ‘no’.

For a start, the anti-treaty Libertas campaign has dissolved after failing to win any of Ireland’s seats in the EU parliament. Given that Libertas leader, Declan Ganley, was the Lisbon Treaty’s highest profile critic, there is arguably an added onus on the state to ensure that both sides of the debate are still heard – exactly what won’t happen given the BCI’s ruling.

With Libertas out of the race, the only anti-Lisbon voices holding political office at any level are Sinn Féin, small left groups such as the Socialist Party (which recently won a seat in the EU parliament) and the Socialist Workers’ Party, which has picked up a few council seats. Additionally, there are a few isolated voices on the republican left, such as Éirígí, and on the Christian right, none of which hold political office. In the establishment corner are the governing Fianna Fáil and its near-identical opposition, Fine Gael, as well as the Green Party (a coalition partner in government) and Labour, a clone of its anti-political British sister party.

Yet anti-Lisbon treaty feeling is not a fringe sentiment in Ireland. In the first referendum, held in June 2008, 53.2 per cent of voters rejected the treaty and voter turnout was 53.3 percent. For the record, this is a higher percentage of the vote than Barack Obama achieved in his much-ballyhooed election as US president (4). In addition, the government is well aware that the treaty is a mere re-run of the EU constitution already rejected by the French and Dutch electorates in 2005 (5).

The Irish establishment is clearly attempting to bulldoze the legislation through the Dáil, Ireland’s parliament, by forcing the electorate’s arm, just as it did with the Nice Treaty which the Irish electorate rejected in a 2001 referendum before being ‘offered the opportunity’ to vote again the following year. The government has also spent the last year ramping up fear, uncertainty and doubt. It is effectively holding a gun to the heads of the electorate claiming that ‘the economy will collapse if we don’t sign up’ (6).

And yet, as the changes to the broadcasting guidelines testify, the establishment still feels the need further to stack the deck. Why is the elite so afraid of a proper debate?

Ireland is not a eurosceptic nation like Britain. In fact, most Irish people are moderately pro-EU. Nevertheless, many Irish people are suspicious of the motives of the EU’s undemocratic elites in effectively forcing ratification of the treaty. Moreover, most were happy enough with the country’s pre-Lisbon relationship with Europe, feeling the Lisbon Treaty was unnecessary, intentionally incomprehensible and did not treat the country as an equal, instead giving it the second class status of a naughty and, presumably red-haired, stepchild.

The Irish public is being frog-marched into accepting a treaty that it is, at best, extremely sceptical of. Referendums are a constitutional requirement in Ireland. They are not a favourite choice with politicians who are, due to Ireland’s hopeless system of proportional representation (instituted, for the record, by the British in 1919 in an attempt to diffuse support for Sinn Féin), more interested in delivering boondoggles to their constituencies than engaging in anything that might be recognisable as politics. After all, the country was denied a referendum on the new blasphemy law, so it’s not as though every controversial law goes before the people (7).

The current Fianna Fáil-Green Party government is massively unpopular and would be devastated if a general election were held now. So it is obvious that the political class is terrified that the public will use a second referendum to give the gombeen-green alliance a bloody nose. The real problem, however, is that the last time the public voted it revealed a total disconnection between politicians and the public – it wasn’t only the government that got a bloody nose, all of the mainstream parties did. If, as predicted, Fine Gael and Labour form the next government, the difficulties faced in ratifying the Lisbon Treaty will at least demonstrate that it won’t be because they won a battle of ideas, it will be because they are seen as slightly less repugnant than Fianna Fáil and the Greens.

The odds are now stacked against the anti-Lisbon campaign, but Ireland does occasionally throw up electoral upsets – a recent by-election saw independent candidate Maureen O’Sullivan hold on to a key seat left vacant by the death of her colleague, the former revolutionary socialist Tony Gregory. Additionally, despite an unsophisticated smear campaign initiated by health minister Mary Harney against the ‘anti-EU’ candidacies of Sinn Féin and the Socialist Party, Joe Higgins, the Socialist Party leader, did win an EU parliament seat in the European elections (8).

The government has loaded the dice because it doesn’t trust the electorate to do its bidding – here’s hoping the politicians are right.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. Visit his website here.

(1) New referendum guidelines for commercial broadcasters, Irish Times, 6 August 2009

(2) New referendum guidelines for commercial broadcasters, Irish Times, 6 August 2009

(3) See coverage of the Lisbon Treaty Campaign from the Campaign Against the EU Constitution (CAEUC) report.

(4) Vote ‘Yes’ or the economy gets it , by Tim Black, 9 July 2009

(5) Dutch say ‘No’ to EU constitution , BBC News, 2 June 2005

(6) See this typical example from the Fianna Fail Republican party.

(7) Ireland’s bizarre war on blasphemy , by Jason Walsh, 20 July 2009

(8) Shades of Dracula and the kiss of death as Uncle Joe goes in for kill, Irish Independent, 2 June 2009

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