Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics


[This version was published in Wall Street Journal]

In the debate ahead of Ireland’s vote last week on the Lisbon Treaty, the “yes” campaign was accused of stirring up apathy. This was about right. Brian Cowen, the new leader of the Fianna Fail-led coalition government, appeared at outdoor meetings, his free hand slapped to his worried forehead while the other held the microphone, telling his audiences, “It’s about the enlargement of the Union. . . . It’s about showing solidarity with the new nations. . . . It’s very important not to be misled.”

His audience of bewildered listeners, benign and impassive, leveled their ignorance at him. “No one is telling us anything,” they were heard to say, “Everyone is telling us something different.” Mr. Cowen called for idealism. “A ‘no’ vote will not be understood,” the prime minister said. His audience instead wanted clear answers and explanations.

One of the most sophisticated political populations in the democratic world, the Irish politely waited their turn. Their skepticism, voiced in their rejection of the treaty in last week’s referendum, has a note of doom about it. But their wisdom in elections is acute and sensitive.

Not many could name the “newly joined states” to which Mr. Cowen referred. Even fewer cared. But they knew, in their hearts, that a “no” vote would be understood. What’s so hard to get about no?

The government and the established opposition have no reason to be confused. They all worked together in an unprecedented political pact for a “yes” and it did not come off. Mr. Cowen campaigned with Garret FitzGerald, a former foreign minister, prime minister, leader of the party that Mr. Cowen has opposed all his life, and doyen of Irish European pundits.

Both men admitted things were not going well running up to Thursday’s vote. Apathy was rising. So was something else, as Mr. FitzGerald said: “It’s very hard to get people out. We get a sense of more negativity now.”

So it proved. Negativity defeated apathy. Mr. Cowen lost his first big contest as leader by a wide margin. Nothing can excuse this failure away, though many have and will try. Mr. FitzGerald blamed their defeat, by a wide margin of 53% to 47%, on “voices from the margins.”

One such voice was Sinn Fein’s, for whose candidates few people voted in last year’s general election. Yet they are now said to have gotten out a big slice of the 850,000 “no” votes. This is not credible.

Similarly the failure of the establishment’s push for the Lisbon Treaty has been laid at the feet of Libertas which, led by the Galway-based businessman Declan Ganley, set out in cool and measured terms business and taxation fears. Like Sinn Fein, Libertas can’t take the credit for more than a small share of the huge vote against Lisbon.
It is wishful thinking to blame extreme left- and right-wingers and eccentric religious groups. There is no easy scapegoat. A broad spectrum of Irish voters voted against the treaty.

That’s a big political problem for the two main Irish opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, which foolishly joined hands with Mr. Cowen in campaigning for “yes.” They put the interests of a hugely complex treaty ahead of their duties to their followers, many of whom broke with them in last Thursday’s vote.

Mr. Cowen’s problems are far more immediate. The prime minister is now faced with a career-changing decision: Does he meet Europe’s dismay over the Irish vote by saying, “Ireland has spoken and I stand by what it has said?” Or does he concede to Europe’e desire to continue ratification and agree to put the question again to the Irish people?

The foreign affairs minister, Michael Martin, goes to Luxembourg today and Mr. Cowen to Brussels Thursday to discuss the next step. They will be under pressure from the other EU leaders to ignore the outcome and urge the Union to go ahead with ratification. Then Mr. Cowen might promise that, if new protocols and amendments are added to Lisbon, the Irish people will vote again. The same happened with the Nice Treaty six years back. If he does this, Mr. Cowen is politically doomed at home.

It will matter little if Brussels promises amendments and gives reassurances over taxation, military neutrality, a guaranteed commissioner’s job for an Irishman even in an enlarged EU—the big concerns for the Irish in the referendum. Other sleight of hand concessions will aim to reassure an angry electorate.

To call a new referendum on the same old treaty would be to misunderstand and disrespect the “no” vote. It would mean any other state that votes against an EU measure can be conveniently ignored.

The Irish electorate knew what it was doing. The poll represented a massive rejection of the three main political parties and the “wise and good” in Ireland. The Irish said no to the trade unions, management organizations, farmers’ representatives, lawyers, businessmen and former leaders of the country.

Mr. Cowen is new to his job but he made major mistakes in this referendum campaign which are not easily forgiven. He underestimated the challenge and started late. He ran a lackluster campaign.

Every attempt to present it as an urgent, appealing option fell on its face. The “no” vote had all the hard questions. And the soft answers coming from figures of experience and lofty confidence fell largely on deaf ears.

The anti-Lisbon vote was not marginal. A majority said “no” firmly without giving a reason. The catalogue of post-hoc explanations of what they meant and how they can be answered will not wash.

Mr. Cowen said clearly that the voice of the Irish people had been expressed and would be respected. Will he dare go back on his word?

The Irish have a long political memory. The Irish Constitution is a precious document, especially in requiring referendum approval when alterations to Ireland’s international status arise as they have with the Lisbon Treaty.

The relatively short period the country has enjoyed independent democracy will count against Mr. Cowen in assuring the European Union this week that it will be all right to go ahead with the Lisbon Treaty irregardless of the Irish. It won’t.

Mr. Arnold is chief political commentator for the Irish Independent.