It seems to have become the norm here in Ireland for the government to repeat a referendum when it does not like the result of the first ballot. While farcical, these bullying tactics have a proven record of success. For an establishment intent on getting its own way, ‘no’ never really means ‘no’.
Fianna Fáil has made great play of the advanced nature of Ireland’s constitution, boasting that Irish people have more democratic rights than others in Europe because Ireland is the only state to have held a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. In reality it refused to accept the will of those same people this October in a replay of the original referendum - just over a year after a resounding ‘no’ vote against a virtually identical set of proposals. Similarly, back in 2001 people voted to reject the Nice treaty by a 54% majority, only to find themselves faced with a repeat referendum the following year. Just like in 2008, the government would not take ‘no’ for an answer and got its way at the second attempt.
While the ‘yes’ vote was expected, the extent of the shift was surprising - 67% voted in favour of adoption of the treaty, reflecting a 20% swing in just over a year. With the exception of Donegal, the response up and down the country in both rural and urban areas was a consistent ‘yes’. Working class constituencies in Dublin were particularly notable for the change in voting patterns. And, although very deprived areas were more likely to abstain or vote ‘no’, the ‘yes’ vote was most certainly not a middle class phenomenon. It is more accurate to describe it as the response of a working class under great pressure and willing to accept anything to relieve the present crisis.
It was clear from the interviews and vox-pops in the run-up to the referendum that many were voting ‘yes’ with a heavy heart. With all the Dáil parties except Sinn Féin united around a single campaign, there was tremendous pressure exerted. But the most important factor was the fear that refusing to adopt Lisbon could provoke a backlash from Europe. It is well known that the government is overwhelmingly dependent on the European Central Bank for large-scale borrowing and debt financing. Ireland does not want to be another Iceland, and people know that the EU has prevented that … so far.
Most important to analyse are the limitations of the leftwing ‘no’ camp. In essence it was narrow and lacking in vision. The dangers of Lisbon were emphasised simply from an Irish perspective. Both the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party warned of attacks on Irish neutrality and national sovereignty, as well as workers’ rights. Fianna Fáil and its allies denounced them for scaremongering. Debate centred on which was the greater danger for the Irish people - to be in or out of Lisbon. There was no campaign for and rarely a mention of the idea that a united European working class could take on the establishment.
In the absence of such an approach the left appeared anti-European and small-minded. And, critically, it allowed the ‘yes’ camp to pose as progressive and forward-looking. The other problem with the lack of a European agenda was that the left could more easily be confused with the rightwing nationalists. Coir, a deeply reactionary anti-abortion campaign, ran a well funded and visible postering operation full of ominous warnings. This included a claim that the minimum wage would be reduced from €8.65 to €1.84. Such pseudo-leftist, exaggerated claims did nothing to bolster confidence in the ‘no’ campaign. With the country in the midst of a major economic meltdown, people wanted more than negativity. Voting for Lisbon was a pragmatic move for many, taking a chance that the ‘yes’ campaign was right when it claimed the treaty would mean jobs and recovery.
The SWP describes the result as a defeat for the left, and this is clearly true. It points to the fact that many white-collar workers see Europe as progressive. But this observation does not lead the SWP to conclude that illusions in the EU must be countered with Europeanism from below. Instead it pledges to ally itself with the third of voters who rejected the treaty. However, the majority of this section is not progressive. While many will have voted ‘no’ from a vague working class perspective, many others will have done so from the petty nationalist standpoint of Coir and Sinn Féin.
In addition, those who voted ‘yes’ are not automatically to the right of those who rejected the treaty. In the present dire circumstances, to many it seemed suicidal to oppose it. Our class is obviously not thinking as a future ruling class, but is desperate to protect itself from yet more suffering.
Socialist Party MEP Joe Higgins congratulated those who voted ‘no’ for their courage and defiance in the face of the establishment’s tremendous propaganda barrage. In an article analysing the result, the SP has emphasised that support for Lisbon cannot be seen in any way as a vote of confidence in the government. Quite right. There were broad smiles of relief on Fianna Fáil faces following the victory, yet the crises that have beset the government almost immediately re-emerged.
A day of action has been called by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions on November 6. This is part of a campaign in the run-up to the dreaded budget in December - the government is set to launch a ‘slash and burn’ attack on public services and impose major cuts in the wages and pensions of public servants. Jack O’Connor, leader of Siptu (the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, the country’s largest trade union), has announced that strikes and confrontations are inevitable.
Other union leaders are warning of a winter of discontent. Obviously if they can get an agreement with the government they will be more than willing to call off any strike action. But bureaucrats are under tremendous pressure from below and there is far less scope for cosy social partnership deals.
Adding to taoiseach Brian Cowan’s woes is the unreliability of Fianna Fáil’s coalition partner, the Green Party. There is deep dissatisfaction amongst rank and file Greens. Many want to pull out of the government before their hands get any dirtier. Support for the Greens plummeted in the last local elections, mainly because they are seen as a willing puppet of Fianna Fáil. Their membership is increasingly fractious. This weekend’s conference will decide on the future of the Greens in government - and is also therefore a vote on the continuance of the Cowan administration itself. And even if leader John Gormley wins a mandate to continue in cabinet, the road ahead is clearly a rocky one.
The government’s popularity is at an all-time low in the polls. Revelations continue to emerge about corruption among ministers and senior civil servants. The latest surround the ceann comhairle (chair of the Dáil) John O’Donoghue. He has been shown to have a very definite penchant for high living and luxury chauffeur-driven limousines. After a determined effort to remain in office, he was finally forced to announce his resignation, with the exposures still continuing. Government spokespersons have now been forced to admit that ‘standards in office’ during the ‘Celtic tiger’ years were far from desirable.
The working class is starting to stir. There have been a number of demonstrations in the last two weeks, involving thousands of protestors in Dublin. More will come as the temperature of the class struggle rises still further. Lisbon will certainly not save the government. But the vote highlights the need for a clear, positive working class agenda. We need a programme that goes beyond simple defence against cuts and job losses. We need our own party, based on Marxism, to challenge capitalism and to fill the vacuum of leadership. The left needs to move forward and take on that challenge.