Bruce Arnold

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


The result of the Lisbon Treaty referendum is good for the people generally, whether they voted Yes or No. It has restored confidence in them as a voice that matters in our democracy. It is an expression of real attitudes among those who actually had the determination and judgment to go out and vote, showing that half the country took its democratic responsibilities seriously.

Some feared for the future of that democracy and they turned out to be the majority, thus causing the defeat of the Lisbon Treaty. The other half expressed faith in Europe and in the judgments made by other people, supposedly their leaders, though those leaders got it wrong in a number of different ways.

This placed as a central issue democracy at home and democracy as it is being shaped in the broad, 27-country partnership of which we form a part. By voting No we enhanced our European standing – at least in democratic terms – by taking nothing for granted and by making clear and intelligent judgments about what is lacking in the future shape of Europe.

This was a significant issue at the heart of the campaign. It was repeatedly put forward by different factions in the No Vote campaign and was repeatedly ignored, muffled or contradicted by those advocating a Yes Vote. They repeatedly painted the post-Yes Vote Ireland as ‘a better place’, ‘more at the centre’, ‘productive of jobs and other benefits’ and all sorts of other good things that were being denied by No Voters.

This was so obviously lacking in the one-sided line-up in the campaign, with past and present Taoisigh, a multitude of ministers, organizational and sectoral leaders, all telling us vague reasons and arguments, laden with promises, for voting Yes. A check and an objective analysis of this was shamelessly lacking in the superficial and inept presentation of the seriousness and meaning of the Lisbon Treaty by the Referendum Commission.

There should never have been a three-party Yes Vote pact. This saw the Opposition leaders taking on the objectives of the government and speaking for only the Yes side of the population. By doing so Fine Gael and Labour damaged seriously their standing with supporters who had doubts. They made it worse by lacking either knowledge or integrity in their explanations of the issues. This was also evident in the uncertainty of major political figures.

None of them, and no significant spokespersons for the Yes Campaign, either tackled the democratic deficit or explained the constitutional reasons for the amendment. Micheal Martin, who, on behalf of the Government, carried more than his fair share of the debate yesterday before the final result came through, identified the issues. Yet he saw these as defence, neutrality, ‘the Right to Life’, militarization, taxation. They are singular and minority issue; they leave aside the huge matter of deliberate confusion and obfuscation about what the Lisbon Treaty really meant, the fact that it altered for ever our citizenship, reduced our democratic strengths and safeguards, took away key rights, such as the one for a permanent commissioner, and never explained these things.

Martin talked of ‘mapping our way forward’ with a process of ‘reflection’. This is a poor response when he and everyone else involved in the campaign has been doing just that and getting it all wrong. Their own attempts at ‘reflection’ seem to have been deliberately misdirected and false, and though, at the end of the campaign, some of them realized, too late, that it was not going well for this very reason, they had no escape clause. Whatever about there being no ‘Plan B’ for Europe, the three main parties certainly had no plan B for themselves.

It is a singular reality that Sinn Fein, a party that has been ostracised comprehensively during the past six weeks of campaigning, got it right and did so as part of its response to what we demanded from them, which was to turn to exclusive democracy. They seem to be doing that. I do not speak for them and never have, but I sympathise with the change that has confronted them and the way they have dealt with it. To continue demonizing them was another of the rather smug and mistaken attitudes taken by the other main political parties.

Brian Cowen had no Plan A, let alone having a Plan B to fall back on. He started on the campaign too late. He was over-confident. He criticised Fine Gael and Labour for not doing enough and then elicited their aid, a U-turn that had mixed impact on Fianna Fail Party membership. In response, Fine Gael and Labour made a judgment that was too quick and was also ill-measured. It was their business to take care of the doubt and uncertainty, not to hector it into a grouping that all three main parties tried to ensure covered everyone, but conspicuously only covered the views of Yes Voters.

This represented a dismally poor assessment of the realities of politics. Very central must be the importance of ignorance and fear. Politicians should allay such concerns. The ‘Big Names’ among pro-Europe disciples and apostles did the opposite.

Cowen, as the leader and architect of this whole Yes Campaign, on which he pinned his political reputation, has fumbled and changed direction more than once. He turned it into a one-sided campaign. He prejudged the outcome. He was over-confident, thinking that buying over objectors, like the farmers, would be admired and get him more votes. It had the opposite effect. He has divided the country, not on party lines – which would be bad, anyway – but on irreconcilable arguments many of which were not really arguments at all. He eased no fears and explained his way through none of the ignorance that was so damaging to the Yes Side. He is in a very difficult position. But it should not be confused with the country’s position. Cowen led himself and his party to where he is. Luckily, the country voted to go elsewhere.