Once more with feeling, Ireland

Tomorrow Irish voters will be asked whether they want their parliament to change the constitution in order to allow for the ratification of the EU’s Lisbon treaty, the majority of those who voted having said no to the same question 15 months earlier. The Irish government’s decision to hold a second referendum has been criticised, particularly – but not only – by those opposed to the treaty, for not accepting that no means no.

Yet those in support of the treaty argued that its rejection by 53% of those who voted, was due to lack of knowledge about, or misunderstandings of, the treaty and its implications – in other words, in this case no didn’t mean «no», it meant «don’t know». As with all forms of voting behaviour, the referendum results only tell us how people voted, not the more interesting question of why they did so. But opinion polls following the referendum support the argument that many voted no because they were unfamiliar with it and did not want to vote for something they didn’t understand.

It is a persuasive argument – after all the government claimed this was the problem in June 2001 when the treaty of Nice was rejected by a referendum. In response to the «Nice I» referendum outcome Bertie Ahern (then the Taoiseach) established a National Forum on Europe, modelled on the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. The forum continued its work after the second Nice referendum, and was widely praised for enriching the debate on Ireland in the EU, and for its non-partisan approach.

Governments often talk about the importance of having a broad public debate on European Union membership, but rarely has the rhetoric been accompanied by a concrete measure like the Irish national forum. Yet instead of reviving the debate in the forum following the rejection of the Lisbon treaty, Brian Cowen took the decision to close it (ostensibly for financial reasons) and to move the debate about Ireland and the EU back to the Oireachtas. This move was criticised by anti-Lisbon campaigners as a calculated strategy to strangle debate, as well as by supporters of the treaty who claimed it was a false economy and would be disastrous in the long-run.

The decision to close the forum certainly seems at odds with the argument that the original «no» to Lisbon was largely due to unfamiliarity with the treaty – surely this would make a non-partisan debate more important, not less important? Nevertheless, the closure of the forum hasn’t meant a shutting down of debate – if anything it’s been quite the opposite. Irish voters have been bombarded with messages from Sinn Féin and Libertas, urging voters to stand firm on their original answer, and from the government and all other major political parties claiming that a second no would be disastrous for Ireland.

Indeed, the confrontational, even aggressive nature of the debate has piqued the public interest, with salacious reports that Declan Ganley and Proinsias de Rossa almost ended up in a fist-fight after a radio debate got rather heated. The result is that the proportion of «don’t know» responses in opinion polls leading up to the referendum is substantially lower than during the first campaign, meaning that whatever the outcome of Friday’s vote it cannot be blamed on lack of information.

Perhaps then, the forum did its job and ran its course. Its discussions were rarely spectacular but neither were they about point scoring and obfuscation. They were, however, based on a recognition that the debate about the EU and Ireland’s place in it (or for that matter any other member state) was not and should not be solely a precursor to a vote. Its closure is a blow because citizens deserve to have access to an ongoing debate about the EU whether there’s a referendum or not, and because on Saturday even though voting on Lisbon in Ireland will be over, the debate won’t be.

Elizabeth Monaghan, a lecturer in politics and the University of Hull, and a member of the university’s Centre for European Union Studies (CEUS)