A voter in County Clare, not content with putting an X beside the no option on the simple ballot paper in the Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty, included a long letter of protest. Its message to the Irish government, which had campaigned desperately for a yes vote, was: «You forgot us in Shannon.» The anonymous voter was using the opportunity of a vote on the structural reform of the European Union to protest against the withdrawal by the newly privatised state airline Aer Lingus of its regular service between Shannon airport and Heathrow. You would have to pity the poor Eurocrats contemplating the wreckage of the results of eight years of negotiation and compromise. What could they possibly say to a voter whose message, however urgent, was not about qualified majority voting or enhanced cooperation, but the operations of a local airline?
Or to the woman in Galway City who told RTE radio that she entered the polling booth undecided but «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»? The irony is that the very absurdity of the woman’s fears make them almost impossible to address. If the Lisbon treaty had contained any provisions that could, by any stretch of the imagination, enforce the conscription of the woman’s handsome boys into a European army, those provisions could be removed or altered. Since it doesn’t, the task of understanding and appeasing the negative sentiment of Irish voters may be a hopeless one.
What can be said with some confidence is that the Irish vote was shaped by the confluence of two factors. One was the miserable nature of the yes campaign. Every major political party except Sinn Féin (which has just 7% of the vote in the Republic) urged a yes vote, as did the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation and, in effect, the Catholic church. The assumption seems to have been that Irish voters would simply follow their leaders. The main party campaigns consisted largely of putting up posters with the earnest faces of local or national politicians and bland slogans like «Good for Ireland, Good for Europe». The implicit message was: «This document is complicated and virtually unreadable but, trust us, there’s nothing bad in it.»
This strategy betrayed an astonishing ignorance of the way the Irish, in common with most Europeans, currently regard their political class. Trust isn’t the most obvious feature of the relationship between governments and the governed. In the Irish case, this lack of faith was greatly enhanced by the scandal over his personal finances that brought down the long-serving taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.
«Bertie», as he was universally known, was genuinely liked and trusted to the extent that when revelations about his personal finances first surfaced, most people gave him the benefit of the doubt. But as his explanations became steadily more outlandish, the sense of disillusionment and betrayal grew. In those circumstances, appealing to trust was a misjudgment that bordered on self-delusion. The benefit of the doubt no longer goes to the establishment.
The other decisive factor was, paradoxically, the very incoherence of the no side. It was made up of people who actually can’t stand each other. There were rightwing Catholics who warned (against the judgment of the Catholic bishops) that Lisbon would open the way to legalised abortion and prostitution, and leftwing liberals who have fought bitterly against those same people in previous referendums on abortion and divorce.
There were leftwing anti-militarists who warned that the treaty compromised Irish neutrality: we got «No» stickers with nuclear mushroom clouds, as if Lisbon is a suburb of Armageddon. And, in the form of Libertas – a mysterious group that emerged from nowhere with a great deal of money to spend – there were people with strong ties to US military contractors.
There were campaigners who warned that the European Union would take away the Republic’s low corporate tax rates, and activists who portrayed the union as a giant corporate conspiracy. Imported British Euroscepticism from the Irish editions of the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail sat alongside resentment of «foreign» influence from the EU.
Logic would seem to suggest that a campaign so riddled with self-contradiction, and so lacking in an agreed alternative vision, ought to be highly ineffective against the big machines of the main political parties. In fact the no campaign turned, more by accident than design, into a very efficient factory of fears. It was able to present voters with an extensive menu of anxieties. In a context where few voters were actually able to read the treaty (the biggest single reason given by likely no voters in an Irish Times poll was that they didn’t understand what they were being asked to vote for), the scattergun of negativity only had to hit one sensitive spot.
The biggest problem for the EU now is that what made the no campaign so effective is also what makes it so hard to deal with. In 2001, when Irish voters rejected the Nice treaty, it was possible to discern a relatively coherent message – mostly that voters were concerned about neutrality. Those concerns could be addressed by adding a declaration to the treaty and changing the Irish constitution. Nice was put to the people again and passed comfortably.
This time things are different. In the first Nice referendum, the turnout was so low that the government could just about get away with asking people to vote again. The turnout for Lisbon was much higher, so repeating the exercise would simply feed the perception that voters are being bullied. In any event, a second vote would have to be on an altered proposition. But to remove most of the things people objected to in the treaty, they would have to have been there in the first place. The treaty’s doom, in other words, is probably sealed by the fact that it’s not actually as bad as many Irish voters think it is.
Fintan O’Toole, assistant editor of the Irish Times.