SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 120 - July/August 2008

Ireland’s No

In a higher than normal turnout for a referendum, the Lisbon treaty was clearly rejected by 53.4% to 46.6%. As the No side had trailed in every poll until the final week, this was a major shock for the political and business establishment in Ireland. KEVIN McLOUGHLIN, Socialist Party (CWI Ireland) reports.

THE GOVERNMENT, ITS new Taoiseach (prime minister) Brian Cowen, most of the parliamentary opposition, including the Labour Party, the bosses’ and farmers’ organisations, most of the trade union leaderships, churches, the media and the rest of the establishment combined their vast resources to call for a Yes vote. They are stunned by the defeat. This is also an important setback for the big-business interests and the political elite who control the EU.

The Socialist Party (CWI Ireland) was an important part of the No campaign. We combined our independent activities with participation in the broader, loose, Campaign Against the EU Constitution, which put forward a progressive and left position. Sinn Féin, the only party in parliament that opposed the treaty, was prominent, particularly in the media. But its central demand, that the treaty should be renegotiated, was weak and, in part, perhaps a preparation for supporting such treaties when it enters a future government.

Socialist Party representative, Joe Higgins, played a critical role in the campaign. Joe was the most capable public figure on the No side. This is generally recognised. In the Evening Herald newspaper, media analyst Terry Prone cited Joe Higgins as one of the ten reasons why Lisbon was defeated: "They failed to realise the impact mavericks like Joe Higgins have. Joe Higgins is an institution. He is more than a curiosity. People who haven’t a left-wing bone in their body identify with him because they find him straight and passionate and witty. If he said healthcare was going to be privatised, it rankled with them".

Unlike the last treaty, where the establishment won the Yes vote with the mantra, ‘do not deny ten countries in eastern Europe the right to join the EU’, this time they could not manufacture any strong arguments. The Yes side argued that Lisbon was mainly about ‘modernising’ the EU, changing its structures so that a bigger EU could work more efficiently. It tried to diminish the important political, economic and military aspects in the treaty document.

Points of contention

THE TREATY WAS written to make it more difficult to pin down its neo-liberal and anti-working class content. It included a so-called Charter of Fundamental Rights, which added no new legal rights for workers but was used by Labour and trade union leaders to justify a Yes vote.

Article 188c of the treaty, by removing national government vetoes on trade deals, opened up the prospect that financial speculators could cherry-pick the most profitable aspects of health and education. It put the right to profit and exploit at the centre of the EU, above the rights of workers to decent pay and conditions. It further facilitated the European Court of Justice to continue making rulings that favour big business over workers (such as the Laval and Rüffert judgments).

Privatisation and workers’ rights were major points of contention throughout the campaign and the Socialist Party helped to force these issues onto the agenda. Mary Harney, health minister, bitterly complained that Joe Higgins and the Socialist Party had put up posters all over the country claiming that health was going to be privatised.

Day in and day out, the Yes side, including the Labour and union leaders, bluntly accused the Socialist Party and the No side of ‘scaremongering’. They claimed that services and rights would be safeguarded by a Yes vote. In this context, it is very significant that the treaty was explicitly rejected by key sections of the working class.

An important question emerged during the campaign: do you trust what the establishment is saying about the treaty? Clearly, key sections of the working class showed they did not! After 15 years of economic boom, and the lack of a political alternative and mass struggles by working people, people’s mood, confidence and attitudes have been affected. However, the rejection of Lisbon was a definite statement by the working class.

There were some reactionary elements on the No side, such as Libertas, a front set up by the neo-liberal billionaire, Declan Ganley. Coir brought together fringe religious elements and anti-abortion reactionaries. These groups were given undue prominence, particularly in the last week of the campaign, in an attempt to frighten people to vote Yes. However, the issues they highlighted – the threat of higher corporate taxation and abortion, etc – did not get significant resonance.

Media & government distortion

IN THE AFTERMATH of the vote, the media and the government are trying to distort the reasons why people voted No. Their initial attempts, immediately after the result, were crude and laughable. Fear of conscription into a future EU army was a factor, some tried to claim! Similarly hollow claims were made on fears of abortion and euthanasia. Now the Irish government has established a research project to "clarify the reasons underlying the rejection of the treaty".

The establishment is trying to shift focus away from the fundamental questions and manufacture the view that secondary issues were the basis for the No vote. They hope to shift opinion, possibly creating the basis for a Yes vote in a re-run referendum.

In the course of the campaign, the worsening position of many ordinary people in small towns and rural communities, small farmers and fishermen, was highlighted. EU agreements and trade deals, as well as the cost of fuel, are wiping out many people’s livelihoods.

Among workers, the myth that the EU was ‘worker friendly’ had already been challenged by their practical experiences. That Lisbon favoured big business, would further diminish democratic control with the move to qualified majority voting, and would impose policies that hit working people, was instinctively understood by many. Defence of the idea of Irish neutrality and opposition to European militarism were additional, important factors.

Neither the Irish nor European political and business establishments have any intention of pulling back from their neo-liberal attacks on the working class. Therefore, the campaign to distort and confuse the issues regarding the referendum and the EU will continue.

A Eurobarometer survey specifically asked people if defending Irish (corporate) tax rates and blocking European legislation to allow gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia were the reasons they voted No. Only 8% of No voters agreed. However, as part of the campaign of distortion, those who argued for a No vote on this reactionary basis are being given significant coverage by the media.

People did not vote No out of ignorance. While there was a general feeling that there was a lack of accessible information, most were quite aware of the arguments. In a Sunday Business Post/Red C poll, nearly 90% gave actual reasons beyond not knowing enough for how they voted.

The polls are being used to confuse the factors behind the no vote. Incredibly, Eurobarometer made no mention of health, education, public services or workers’ rights at all. This illustrates the extent of the manipulation and propaganda campaign. However, in one poll that did ask people about workers’ rights, 76% of No voters disagreed with the statement that Lisbon "strengthened the protection of workers’ rights". Numerous polls indicate that even the majority of Yes voters thought the No campaigners were more convincing.

The class divide

WHAT CANNOT BE denied is the class basis of the vote. Fifty-three percent of those who voted in rural areas and small towns voted No. In the main metropolitan areas the vote was more 50-50. However, here the class lines were even more sharply drawn: 60% of manual workers did not vote but, of those who did, 74% voted No; 58% of professionals and 60% of self-employed people voted Yes, as did 66% of senior managers. Amongst women 56% voted No. While only 36% of 18-24 year-olds voted, 65% voted No; 72% of student voters voted No. The fact that young people did not experience the crisis of the 1980s, and are likely to be less ‘thankful’ for the boom and the EU, and internet use, are probably important factors in the youth vote.

In Dublin West where Joe Higgins was a TD, in the more upper-middle class parts of Castleknock, the Yes vote averaged 67-71%. In the Hartstown working-class area, where the overwhelming majority of homes are privately owned, the No vote was 70.8%. In Blakestown, which is a working-class area with a higher proportion of social housing, of those who voted, 83.4% voted No!

This vote does not mean that the Lisbon treaty is gone. Preparing the EU for an intensification of competition with the US and China, and the scramble for markets, resources and influence, is vital for big business. If, following this vote, the ratification of the treaty continues by the other EU governments, it is likely the EU establishment will try to proceed. They will possibly pressurise Ireland to vote again, or threaten that the Irish will be ‘left behind’!

The best follow-up to this victory would be an active response by working people in the workplaces, communities, schools and universities, to build an opposition to capitalist neo-liberal policies.

The Socialist Party will do all in its power to help build such a movement. We ran a vibrant No campaign, further developing our national profile. Crucially, the vote exposes the gulf between working people and the establishment, including the leaders of Labour and the trade unions. This poses the vital need for building a new mass party for working people.


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