Skip to Content

The Irish No

A socialist in Ireland looks at the vote there to reject the EU’s proposed Treaty of Lisbon.

On the 12th of June, voters in the Republic of Ireland rejected a constitutional proposal to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. The rejection has caused ripples across Europe and provoked a lively and continuing discussion in the letters pages of the newspapers and in radio phone-in programmes. It is a quintessential example of what passes for ‘politics’ under capitalism with heated debate amongst the protagonists and yet the result is as irrelevant to most people as the composition of government here after the next election. Closer inspection of the campaign and its aftermath reveals all the pointlessness, chicanery and opportunism of mainstream politics.

The European Union (although that wasn’t its name at the time) was founded by six, reasonably like-minded European countries by the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The aim then (and still now) was to make capitalism more efficient throughout the continent by organising it on a pan-European scale. The basic tenets of permitting the free movement of capital, goods and ‘labour’ (people in the real world) between member states had the intention of giving capitalists the opportunity to conduct their business in the most profitable location at any moment in time. Over the last 50 years the Union has grown so that it now has nearly 30 member countries ranging from the Mediterranean, to the Nordic states and includes most of the pre-1990 Eastern bloc. In fact most countries in Europe are now either members, candidate members, associate members or at a minimum aspirational members. Like any organisation, as it has evolved over time, its governing rules require continual amendments and the Lisbon Treaty is the latest such initiative. The main thrust of all these successive amendments has been to put flesh on and develop the principle of free movement and free trade within Europe.

The problem for the EU is that there is no longer unanimity amongst what may be termed the European capitalist class as to how the Union should develop and what are the appropriate rules for possibly completing structures for it. The Irish referendum debate and result is a manifestation of this and illustration of how the governing ideas in society are those of the capitalist elite. One section of the capitalist class, controlling large multi-national enterprises that are involved in international manufacture and tradable services are extremely concerned about global competition from the USA, China, India, South America etc. They want to see more integration of capitalism within Europe by the dismantling of any remaining national barriers in order to strengthen their position with respect to these external competitors. Some of this programme would involve having a uniform tax base throughout Europe and a ‘Services Directive’ whereby capitalists in any country in the Union would have open access to markets in all the other countries and not be hindered by any local labour or other regulations. Broadly this section of the capitalist class has the approval of the Brussels Commission, the ruling administration of the EU. Furthermore as part of this programme, they are prepared to accept a stronger social element to the EU in terms of certain aspects of workers rights to in effect partly compensate workers for the increased competitive environment in which they will have to sell their labour. This political philosophy usually goes by the name of Christian or Social Democracy where capitalist engage with the organised labour movement taking a long term view of the benefits to profits that stem from stability and social cohesion. As against that there is another rival section to the capitalist class. These generally operate smaller businesses acting in predominately national markets or trading almost exclusively with individual countries outside Europe such as the USA. They see no real need or advantage to be gained from deeper collaboration and are at a minimum, suspicious or completely opposed to these developments. To them other capitalists within Europe are as much a threat as those outside the EU. They also tend to be more resistant to the social aspects of Europe viewing it as a cost that confers no particular advantage to them.

Within Ireland, this uncertainty or confusion in the ruling circles of Europe also manifested itself. On the Yes or pro-treaty side was an uneasy and in parts unlikely alliance consisting of most of the important political parties, the employers’ umbrella organisation IBEC, the corresponding labour organisation, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and important sectional groups such as the Farmers organisations. The political parties, although they spend huge time and effort in ritualistic attacks on each other, basically share the same Christian Democratic ethos which fits in with the EU philosophy and explains their support for the Treaty. Given the predominance of multi-national companies in Ireland’s industrial portfolio (who located here specifically to take advantage of membership of the EU), it was no surprise that IBEC also solicited a yes vote. The unions’ governing body, the ICTU was won over by the social concessions in the Treaty and a desire to be in line with the mainstream labour movement on the continent.

The anti-Treaty side was even more motley in terms of its make-up and consisted of two entirely disparate streams (one from the Right and one from the Left) each in turn containing a myriad of sub-organisations. >From the right of the political spectrum were prominent businessmen such as Ben Dunne (retail), Ulick McEvaddy (airlines) and most prominently Declan Ganley (communications). Joining them were a variety of free-market commentators, staunch and unchanging Europhobes and some reactionary populists. The main plank of their opposition to the Lisbon Treaty could be summarised by the lessening of Ireland’s influence within Europe due to the proposed loss of automatic national Commissioners and less ability for Ireland to set independent tax and national macro-economic policies. This Rightist element of the No campaign also included a curious assortment of very traditional and conservative nationalists and extreme Catholics worried about threats to Ireland’s sovereignty and ability to set independent (i.e. Catholic) social policies. The Left side of opposition to Lisbon also had a multitude of identifiable sub-groups each with its own grievance. Although the Green Party is part of the government, a dissident wing of the Green Party opposed the centralising tendencies inherent in the Treaty. Sinn Fein claimed to be concerned about the effect on the position of Irish workers of unrestricted access to the Irish market by foreign capitalists and also were unhappy with the increasing role of a potential European army and its effect on Ireland’s traditional neutrality. The Greens and Sinn Fein were joined in their opposition by a large number of small groups of Leftist, Trotskyite, Anarchist, ‘Anti-War’ and some bizarre single-issue protest organisations (Rural Hospitals, Palestinian Solidarity, etc.).

Most of the debate was ridiculous. The Yes side warned of economic meltdown if the Treaty was rejected when everyone knew an economic recession was already underway caused by factors nothing to do with the issue. Sinn Fein (an organisation responsible for over half of all deaths in the 30-year Troubles through its former armed wing, the IRA) claimed to be worried about growing ‘militarism’ within Europe. The Left groups opposed the Treaty on the longstanding and remarkably persistent misapprehension that capitalism organised on an international basis is something reprehensible while if the same society exists on a national basis, then that is something tolerable. This presumably stems from their aspiration that national capitalism can be more easily converted into state capitalism than if it has an international character. In fact some of the claims, mostly by the No side, made about the EU were so conspiratorial that they had the air of a UFO crank convention.

In any event, the Treaty was rejected by 53 percent to 46 percent on a relatively healthy turnout of over 50 percent. While both elements of the No campaign claimed credit for the result, the real winner out of the debate is the mysterious Mr. Declan Ganley who in the space of a few short weeks went from being an unknown figure to being the perceived architect of the Irish rejection. He is a self-made millionaire who made his money through his close contacts with senior members of the American Bush administration which yielded a number of lucrative defence contracts with the US military authorities. Prior to that he had advised a number of former Communist countries in Eastern Europe on the implementation of ‘privatisation’ of state assets and interests. He set up the campaigning organisation, Libertas which provided the bulk of the resources of the No side in terms of flyers, posters, billboard and newspaper advertising. The generous funding of this body is mysterious and under electoral rules does not have to be disclosed until next year. Also because it is not a political party, the level of disclosure about its donors is less stringent than it would be otherwise. There are rumours (denied by Libertas) that the organisation is financially supported by right wing elements in the Republican Party in America who see a growing and more integrated EU as a future threat in the same way as they now view China. He is now the toast of Euro-sceptics throughout Europe (at least those of a rightist persuasion) and has become a leading standard bearer of trans-European opposition to the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty. He has been glowingly endorsed by the British euro-sceptics, UKIP and the Tory right.

It is clear that Libertas outspent all the other bodies involved in the campaign. They were helped in this by a court ruling, a decade ago in connection with another referendum which made it illegal for the Government to spend public money on advocating a Yes vote. At the time this ruling was viewed as a progressive measure (levelling the playing field in referenda campaigns) but all it has led to is the American situation where private money now dictates the campaigns and success usually goes to the best funded groups and not those with the best arguments or greater support. The practical effect of the ruling is that the Government parties had to spend their own party money and resources to encourage a yes vote. This led to a very token campaign on their behalf as the party loyalists were hardly going to be enthusiastic about selling a 260-page technical document to the electorate. Although the main opposition parties (Fine Gael and Labour) were nominally supportive they clearly decided against spending money to obtain a result that the government would ultimately claim as a victory for itself. There is nothing unusual about that; most political parties only spend real money on getting their own members elected in sufficient numbers to give them access to power where the prospects of enrichment and rewards are tangible. Spending money to change peoples’ minds for its own sake is not a priority. All in all this has left the Irish government with a headache they could have done without. They are under pressure from the leading integrationist countries such as France and Germany to resolve it before other countries with a history of cold feet about European federalism such as Britain, Denmark and the Czech Republic join the No bandwagon. At the same time they are hemmed in by the justifiable taunts of ignoring the peoples’ sovereign will if they ignore or try to legally finesse the outcome of the vote.

What the future holds for this issue, time will tell. Inevitably it will be resolved by some compromise and the System will continue. In five, ten or twenty years time, people will look back and marvel at the heat and dust that it has raised and maybe wonder whatever became of Declan Ganley. For Socialists such tinkerings with the system are of no real concern. Given that the Treaty itself is mainly technical in nature and independent studies show it will not make a huge change to the day-to-day operation of the EU, whether it is ratified or not will not significantly impact on our lives. Only when the over 90 percent of the world’s people, who make a meaningful contribution to life on earth, realize that their interests need a new outlet, can politics become real and meaningful.

KEVIN CRONIN

These may be related...