Bruce Arnold

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

We should not swap our Constitution for Europe's

The central issue on which the country will vote in the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is constitutional. All other matters, on which we are being peppered with assurances, exaggerations, threats, cajolement and the absurdities that are promised in what will become a tidal wave of posters, are peripheral.

We have lived for the past 70 years with a workable and, essentially, a good Constitution. When it was offered to the people it was in language they could understand. It was debated for a year, nationally, and scrutinised in detail by the Dail before enactment.

Constitutions are living things. They change with time and are enriched by legal challenge and by legal definition. The lifetime of our own Constitution has been punctuated by amendments. Some people think of them as messy footnotes; in fact they are part of the basic document, and in a sense are a legal and moral lifeblood pumped into the protective and defining words that have served us well for the greater part of Ireland's independent history.

The Lisbon Treaty, which is the Constitution for the new European Union, has not a single one of these qualities, safeguards or protections. It is like a huge structure of scaffolding surrounding an incomplete building which will never be completed. It is incomprehensible. No one can read and digest it. That makes it impossible to judge on its merits -- if there are any -- and on its defects, which are glaringly apparent in this aspect of its dense texture.

It is presented to us as totally rigid in the supposed protections of taxation, neutrality and defence. But it cannot be this if it is the future law, embracing our governance as citizens of the European Union, since laws -- as we have seen in the development of our own Constitution -- change their meaning and our lives.

Changes within Europe in defence, neutrality and taxation are as inevitable as the rising of the sun and the setting of the moon. But we are being told -- quite dishonestly -- that Europe's moon has risen and is stuck in the sky, as is the sun.

As a people we have existed, perhaps uncomfortably at times, with the living reality of our very real, powerful and protective Constitution. We have watched it change and have accepted such changes. They define us. But in doing so, even with the many changes, they still abide by natural law. The Irish Constitution is a ready reckoner in which citizens can discover how they and their families are defined within the State and by the State, what their duties and rights are, and what their politicians should be doing for them.

Among other things, the Constitution encourages the people to trust the structures which it enshrines. These include the many definitions of how our democracy works. It is a central plank of the document.

The Lisbon Treaty does the precise opposite. There is no definition of anything for anyone. We do not know about any rights from what we are given. We only know that we are voting ourselves into a new system of laws and controls that simply cannot be permanently defined.

For it to work -- if it ever does work in the way a constitution should -- it has to be amendable. Yet that is precisely what is being denied by those who support it. In any area where fears or reservations reside in the minds of citizens, the assurances are given that the Lisbon Treaty offers no threat and that this will not change.

Quite wrongly, and almost certainly inaccurately, the chairman of the Referendum Commission made a public statement to the effect that, on neutrality and corporation tax, Ireland had nothing to fear. It is not his role nor that of the commission, under the legislation, to be supporting the interpretation of one side. He must be even-handed and he must help everyone to a balanced judgment, not a biased judgment.

In a letter to this newspaper, following my last article on the Lisbon Treaty, Barry Walsh, who has been a vigorous letter-writer on the Lisbon Treaty without revealing that he is president of Young Fine Gael, suggests that the forthcoming amendment to the Constitution has been there since 1972 and why did I not look this up?

The two circumstances are profoundly different, and Barry Walsh, if he is any kind of budding politician at all, must have known that. When we amended our Constitution in 1972, before joining the EEC the following year, we did so in order to join a "Community" of sovereign states seeking to share in access to a market.

This collective action did not give primacy to EU laws, since it was not the EU, but a community. And we accepted directions about changing the status of existing laws on equality, non-discrimination, food standards and health and safety, outside the federation now proposed. This was reinforced by the European Court of Justice which decided that Community laws were supreme. It was a benignly implemented jurisdiction. Under the wider blanket of European Union supremacy this could represent a quite different legal authority. The alternative to it would continue with a No vote. Barry Walsh knows it and so do I. But he is not saying.

Nor are any of the other fierce protagonists on behalf of a Yes vote. The sense of threat they indulge in is made palpable by the dishonesty inspiring it. Indeed, the Taoiseach, within his own party, has precluded any real debate at all and is accusing the No Vote side of "confusing" arguments that are banned within Fianna Fail. What kind of campaign is that?

The species of argument that is becoming prevalent among campaigners for a Yes vote is a form of nonsense based on these dire threats.

The reality is that we were all prepared to accept that present and past membership of the Community -- and indeed the European Union as it currently operates -- yielded enormous benefits to us and that we have been good members. But somehow this has now changed utterly. We can only be "good" if we vote one way. If we do not, we are in danger of not having any of those benefits and of being transformed, by a vote, into being very bad members indeed. This is a form of nonsense that should be confronted by a firm No Vote.

Tony Benn put it succinctly during a visit to Dublin on May 6 when he said that the Lisbon Treaty "is designed to replace our domestic democracies with European bureaucracy". That is the nub of it, though in fact it is much worse because the bureaucracy, demonstrably, will be weighted against us.

Our Constitution, well tried over 70 years, will cease to have its present meaning. Our democracy, battered by many heavy assaults in power by politicians who have been discredited, will be further damaged. Our citizenship will be irreversibly changed by duplication. And the same duplication will affect our loyalties. We think this is all rosy now; we will think differently in years to come.