A defeat for the democratic instinct

The Second Irish Referendum: the Irish people have spoken, yes, but in the voice of someone put into a headlock by far more powerful forces.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

For those of us who believe in democracy, it is galling to hear officials in Brussels congratulate the Irish people for speaking with a ‘clear voice’ on the Lisbon Treaty.

When the Irish first spoke with a clear voice on the treaty in June 2008 – rejecting it by a majority of 53.4 per cent to 46.6 per cent – they were denounced as ungrateful and ignorant plebs who didn’t understand the complexities of EU politics. They were ‘bastards’, said one EU official, who had been swayed by the ‘unholy’ and ‘unspeakable’ alliance of No campaigners, and their rejection of the treaty showed how dangerous it is to give ‘any clown with a pen’ the right to vote on important, cerebral issues (1). Given Ireland’s apparently mad rules on holding referenda on constitutional matters, there was only one thing for it, decided Cowen, Sarkozy, Merkel and the rest: the bastards would have to vote again.

Now that the Irish people have said Yes to the Lisbon Treaty, which was accepted by a majority of 67.1 per cent to 32.9 per cent in the Second Referendum on Friday, they are patted on the back for making a clear democratic statement. ‘The Irish have spoken with a clear voice. It is a good day for Ireland and a good day for Europe’, said Irish PM Brian Cowen, whose job and unpopular government were on the line, alongside the treaty, in Friday’s referendum (2).

Such double standards are nauseating, clear evidence, if any more were needed, that it is not the Irish people’s voice at all that Cowen and EU officials respect, but their ability to give the ‘right answer’, to accept the agenda of their betters, to do as they are told. When they said No they were bastards; when they said Yes they were good democrats. In the view of EU oligarchs, the people are not there to debate and decide, but merely to rubberstamp.

It is true that the Irish people have now accepted the Lisbon Treaty and that they did so of their own free will; they had not been turned into the voting equivalent of Stepford wives between the first and second referenda. But let’s not kid ourselves that the Second Irish Referendum was democratic. In fact the referendum represented a defeat of the democratic instinct expressed by the Irish people in June last year, and by the French and Dutch voters before them who rejected the EU Constitution – the Lisbon Treaty’s first incarnation – in 2005 (3). The Irish have spoken, yes, but they have spoken in the voice of someone who has been put into a headlock, someone who is threatened and cajoled and denied the ability to speak back with clarity or vigour – and, crucially, someone who lacks his own gang to defend him and fight his corner. By a combination of political blackmail from the EU and the incoherence of the No campaign, the Irish people’s positive and instinctive suspicion of the EU bureaucracy that seems so far removed from their lives has been suppressed, and possibly defeated.

For all the celebrations in Brussels of the result of the Second Irish Referendum, the truth is that it should never have taken place. Imagine the uproar there would have been if, following the election of Barack Obama last year with 52.9 per cent of American votes compared with 45.7 per cent for the Republicans, bigwig members of the Republican Party had said the American electorate got it ‘wrong’, were possibly a bit stupid, and thus should vote again? Yet that imaginary scenario is little different to the reaction to the Irish people’s similarly overwhelming support for No (53.4 per cent) over Yes (46.6 per cent) in the first referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Forcing the Irish to vote again – ‘until they come up with the right answer’, as one EU-critical commentator described it (4) – represented an historic sucker-punch to the sovereignty of the people. From the outset, the Second Referendum was based on the deeply undemocratic idea that the Irish people’s minds had been poisoned, that they had been misled by ‘populist demagogues’, and that they should be given a second chance to do the right thing (5).

From this anti-democratic starting point, the elite elements campaigning for a Yes vote in the Second Referendum used fear and ultimatums over debate and enlightenment to put their case. At an EU summit in late June 2008, where EU heads gathered to find a solution to the ‘Irish problem’, the EU elite agreed that it would not launch a campaign of ‘shame’ against Ireland (which was nice of it) but it did say that it should be made clear to the Irish people that the Lisbon Treaty is ‘the only show in town – we are not going to get a better one’ (6). French President Nicolas Sarkozy jumped the gun and angered even Irish officials when he said just days after the Irish rejection of Lisbon in 2008: ‘The Irish will have to vote again.’ Visiting Ireland to carry out a bit of diplomatic ‘arm-twisting’ to ‘force Ireland to reconsider its veto of the Lisbon Treaty’, as one report described it, Sarkozy showed that, for EU leaders, something as unimportant as a people’s vote, a people’s clear rejection of a constitutional treaty, could not be allowed to stand in the way of their own ambitions for remaking Europe as they saw fit (7).

In Dublin, Irish officials quickly set about stoking up the politics of fear to convince the Irish people to say Yes to Lisbon in the Second Referendum: a widely disseminated government report warned that a second rejection of Lisbon would have a ‘devastating effect on Ireland’s political influence, economic prospects and international standing’ (8). Posters across the country warned that Ireland might return to its ‘past poverty’ if it rejected the treaty again and remained on the outskirts of the EU. Many have argued that the deepening of the recession, which has hit Ireland hard, made the Irish people come to their senses: ‘The real threat of national bankruptcy put the theoretical threat of diminished national autonomy in its place.’ (9) In short, the brute reality of the recession kept in check the Irish people’s alleged desire – misplaced and fanciful as it was – to protect their nation from EU encroachment. The recession did play a role in the Second Referendum, but largely as a means through which the EU and Irish elite’s anti-democratic hectoring of the Irish people to do the ‘right thing’ could be given strength and definition: the recession was used as a tool of political and emotional blackmail by EU officials who knew how they wanted to reshape EU institutions long before the current recession had kicked in.

Irish officials even changed their nation’s electoral rules in order, this time round, to suppress the apparently dangerous ‘mythology’ of the No campaign. Just two months before the Second Referendum, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland unveiled new guidelines clarifying that ‘there is no requirement to allocate an absolute equality of airtime to opposing sides of the referendum debate during editorial coverage’ (10). In short, the media, the vast majority of which are pro-treaty, could upfront Yes and put down No as much as they liked. No doubt this was designed to protect the voters from ‘unholy, impossible, unspeakable’ alliance that apparently warped Irish voters’ brains last time round (11).

But the problem wasn’t just the cynicism, manipulation and blackmail of the EU and Irish elites – there was also the fact that the opposition to the Lisbon Treaty has tended to be instinctive and diffuse rather than principled and coherent. It is not true, as pro-treaty people continually argued, that the No campaign was made up of lunatics, xenophobes, evil Reds and anti-abortion religious cranks. But it is true that the anti-treaty opposition has been a disjointed effort that has failed to put forward a clear or consistent argument against the undemocratic beast that is the European Union. Consequently, there was no movement that could give meaning to, or sustain, the Irish people’s genuine democratic instinct to say No to this external, elitist oligarchy. Under immense pressure from a fearmongering EU elite, and lacking a serious political movement that might turn their decent instincts into something more powerful, Irish voters seem to have felt increasingly isolated, uncertain of their standpoint, and pressurised into not voting at all or just saying Yes. Reading media interviews with Irish voters, there is a palpable soul-destroyed sense that they had no choice but to say Yes, that they felt it was their duty.

Democracy is never perfect. In all referendum and election campaigns there are elements of force, coercion and manipulation. But these regressive trends can be kept in check, sometimes even rectified, through a process of open and free debate. In the Second Irish Referendum, however, so high was the level of elite political blackmail, and so severe was the demonisation of the No campaign, that the regressive trends could hold sway and an electorate could effectively be blackmailed into falling into line. The result should worry everyone who is in favour of Europe – of cross-border solidarity and of the enlightened European traditions of freedom and equality – and who is thus deeply sceptical about the bureaucratic, illiberal, border-policing EU. To date, the Irish people have been left all alone either to challenge the Lisbon Treaty on behalf of eurosceptics or to pass it on behalf of the EU elite. Eurosceptics tended to look upon the Irish as the last bastion of rebellion against the EU rather than demanding more democratic debate across Europe, while the EU elite treated the Irish as the last barrier to making the treaty a reality and sought to deny similar democratic decision-making powers to the citizens of other EU states.

There is far too much at stake here to leave the Irish people all alone to stand up to the EU oligarchy. The experience of the Second Irish Referendum shows that we urgently need more democratic debate about the future of Europe, and more solidarity across borders with anyone instinctively suspicious of the elite EU project.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) See ‘After all the money you got? Ungrateful bastards’, by Kevin Rooney

(2) Ireland votes for a stronger EU, Washington Post, 3 October 2009

(3) See From Europe to America: the populist moment has arrived, by Frank Furedi

(4) Quoted in What part of Ireland’s ‘no’ does the EU not understand?, by Brendan O’Neill, Comment Is Free, 13 December 2008

(5) See ‘After all the money you got? Ungrateful bastards’, by Kevin Rooney

(6) EU gives Ireland an ultimatum, Independent, 20 June 2008

(7) The Lisbon Treaty: Sarkozy’s next move, The Times, 2 July 2008

(8) Changed world needs new attitude to treaty, Irish Times, 4 December 2008

(9) Britain must grow up and stop believing Europhobe nonsense, Guardian, 3 October 2009

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Topics World


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