Bruce Arnold

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

Referendum cannot be re-run and 'No' means no to Lisbon

There is no amending or freshening up Lisbon. If we think there is, we will prove the flawed and limited nature of democracy in Europe

During the period of active campaigning on the Lisbon Treaty referendum, I talked extensively with friends, acquaintances and critics of the treaty in the political arena. The 12 articles I wrote give a reasonable account of the development of my thoughts, from doubt and uncertainty to an unequivocal rejection of a badly-written, badly-constructed and largely incomprehensible document.

The people of Ireland were invited to accept the treaty in a blind act of faith, having been advised on its content by politicians from the three main parties. It was virtually a political command that voters approve it -- on a shallow party mandate, or say-so -- in what is one of the more solemn acts of open to normal voters, the changing of the Constitution.

The appeal was accompanied by a carpet bag full of junk offers and ridiculous threats, should the electorate vote 'No'. It did vote 'No'. The threats fell apart almost as fast as the deceit of the 'Yes' campaign. Brian Cowen said he would reflect, and that he respected the will of the people. Yet he has declared himself still a supporter of the 'Yes' vote and has shouldered the responsibility, on Europe's behalf, of achieving a settlement in favour of the treaty.

This places his personal interpretation of what we should have done, and still should do, against a solemn public decision. He appears to be widely supported by those in the media who have similar views, a very dangerous group to follow in my opinion.

I have just spent three days in the west, mainly in Mayo, a county I know reasonably well, and now respect even more for its handling of the Lisbon Treaty question. In all the weeks dealing with this question -- before, during and after the vote -- I never met anyone from any identifiable grouping, marginal or not. No politicians came to the door, canvassed on the streets or 'did' the shopping malls. There was a robust determination among 'No' voters that there was little chance of them changing their views, and among 'Yes' voters that somehow they had been ill-advised and might well think again. There was also a sense of finality about the act of a constitutional referendum, and a rejection of the concept that we would, or should 'Play it again, Sam!' It is not so much the Lisbon Treaty that matters in this regard as the shape and purpose of our democratic system. And there is disdain for those who think they can manipulate the public.

Those whose views underpinned much of what I wrote about the Lisbon Treaty during the campaign, were significantly affected by unease over the nature of our democracy and the very poor quality of debate, much of which was sustained by men and women who supposedly valued Europe and wanted Ireland's success as a member of the European Union to go on. They did all the wrong things to achieve this before the vote, and are now sustaining that path of error in the belief that the Irish democratic system could sustain another bout of chicanery and dishonesty. I suspect it could not, and the anger that might be engendered would put many senior politicians and parties at risk from the electorate.

Brian Cowen should have told the heads of the other EU governments that, in the light of the Irish vote, further ratifications were pointless. The onus was on the EU to respond to Ireland, not on Ireland to respond to its own decision. He did nothing of the sort. Of course he can't stop ratification, but he could have said it was pointless. This, in European Treaty terms, is the case.

What he told Gordon Brown, the day before the EU Summit, which led to Brown almost, but not quite, completing British ratification, has not been revealed. But his basic position is a determination to keep the Lisbon Treaty alive and his support for doing this is a minority support in the country, like the very questionable Department of Foreign Affairs conviction that stupid Irish voters can be sweetened into changing their minds.

This is a bending of the knee to the essential outcome of the post-referendum European Summit, where the tables were turned on Ireland and the absurd process of labelling a 'No' vote electorate as a pariah -- to be left to change its voice and stance -- was resumed. The pro-'Yes' media rowed in behind this deeply dubious and flawed situation with remarkable gusto and scorn. Totally ignored was the minimal 'No' vote idea -- one with which I do not myself agree -- that the Lisbon treaty might be opened up and amended. That happened with its predecessor after the French and Dutch said 'No'.

There is no amending or freshening up Lisbon. If we think there is, and act on that assumption, we will prove straight away the truth contained in one of the major criticism of Europe, one that persuaded voters to vote 'No'. That is, the flawed and limited nature of democracy in Europe. Also, if an attempt is made to invoke provisions in the Nice Treaty -- much talked of in the aftermath of the vote -- this would negate the Lisbon Treaty. Change to Nice, for Ireland's benefit, would be a de facto recognition of the validity of the referendum decision.

We have judged the Lisbon Treaty as a bad treaty and said 'No' to it. If there was a fault in its presentation, that lay with the 'Yes' campaign as well as with the Referendum Commission, which failed to complete its statutory obligations. There have been mea culpas about some of these shortcomings, though they carry little weight and gain even less sympathy.