Ireland: confusion over the Nice Treaty

On Saturday 19 October Irish people voted on the proposition to accept or reject the Nice Treaty. They voted substantially in favour, which means the Treaty has overcome one of its main hurdles. While the issue itself is more or less irrelevant from a socialist perspective, nonetheless it does illuminate some current issues in society that are of interest to socialists.

The treaty itself is essentially an internal housekeeping exercise for the European Union. To facilitate ten or so applicant countries from eastern Europe joining the Union, the European establishment wants to streamline its institutions prior to the accession of these countries. This involves changing the number of seats allocated to each country in the European parliament, making modifications to the way the Council of Ministers works, capping the number of European Commissioners and consequently no longer guaranteeing the right of each country to have a commissioner at all times and finally some modest reductions in the veto powers of individual states. As is evident nothing of huge interest to the European working class.

Only in Ireland is a popular referendum, rather than simple parliamentary vote, taking place on the treaty as has been the custom here with EU treaties over the last 30 years. The issue has been coloured though by the fact that the Irish people have already voted on it. In the original referendum held in June 2001 it was rejected by a small margin on a very low turnout. At the time the government organised a very lack-lustre campaign on its behalf and was ambushed by the No groups. Embarrassed by that setback, they mounted a more vigorous campaign this time round.

Bertie Aherne: clearly relieved

So who’s making the running on this? Supporting the treaty are naturally the government, a coalition made up of the large populist Fianna Fail party and the minor, pro-business Progressive Democrats party. The largest opposition party, Fine Gael is also behind the treaty which is unsurprising as they are generally considered to be the most pro-European of the major parties. The employers organisation IBEC has also come out in favour and paid for some expensive billboard advertising. All the above are avowedly pro-capitalist (or pro business / pro enterprise as they would phrase it) and are playing the expected role as the representatives of capitalism in Ireland. Indeed the employers stress that enlargement of the EU will be good for trade and investment; good for those capitalists making those investments might be the socialist riposte.

There’s more to the yes side though. The Irish Labour Party have come out in support though their presence on the ground has been slight as their leading members are engaged in an internal leadership campaign. The leadership of the ICTU has also called for a Yes though this policy is by no means universally popular within the trade union movement. Both the Labour Party and the ICTU are stressing solidarity with the workers of Eastern Europe and allowing those countries to experience the benefits that Ireland has enjoyed from the EU as their motivation.

The No coalition
So if it’s good for capitalists and good for workers who’s opposed to it? Quite a lot actually. The No side can be conveniently divided into the politically respectable and what might be termed the political pariahs. The latter are certainly the smaller component of the anti Nice group. They have come out with a blatantly xenophobic message stating that the passing of the Nice Treaty will mean hordes of impoverished Eastern European immigrants will descend on Ireland (for some obscure reason the figure of 800,000 Hungarians is bandied about). In addition the cost of integrating Eastern Europe into the EU and the assumed drain on Irish tax revenue is their second plank. This is all very ironic given that to date Ireland has on a per capita basis probably been the largest recipient of EU funds and that Irish workers themselves have until very recently been forced to emigrate in large numbers. A final issue for these people is that increasing the powers of the EU may have some negative consequences for “traditional Irish values”; this is usually code for stating that Ireland may be in the future forced by other EU countries to relax its extremely restrictive position on abortion and other Catholic values. Although the Catholic Bishops have given nominal support to the treaty (following the pope’s lead) this last point will have resonance for the socially conservative voter

The mainstream of the No side is composed of groups who would see themselves as radicals in opposition to the Establishment. These groups include the Green Party, Sinn Fein, the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party (i.e. former Militant), the Workers Party, a number of left-wing Independent members of the Irish Parliament, some Third World aid organisations, Peace Campaigners, people who want to reform the EU and then straight forward Nationalists. They have come together in an anti-Nice umbrella group and have raised a whole host of objections to the treaty some of which are of a highly abstract nature. Broadly though they claim to be concerned about a loss of national sovereignty and the growing militarisation of Europe which could drag Ireland into future conflicts. The spectre of Ireland being forced to join NATO is repeatedly raised as is the forced privatisation of public utilities. The former is a red herring though there is some truth to the latter assertion. Also to be fair to this faction of the ‘No’ campaign they have strenuously disassociated themselves from the racist, anti-immigrant message of the other segment of the opposition.

Nevertheless this is all very disappointing to real socialists given that in some quarters these kind of groups (who fit the anti-globalisation profile quite well) are meant to be the next big opposition to capitalism replacing the traditional labour movements with their mass Social Democratic parties and trade unions. When people start talking about the importance of preserving national independence it’s a clear sign of a total lack of elementary socialist consciousness. They may call it maintaining local democracy but what’s meant is maintaining local capitalism. Real socialists too are also concerned about workers being dragooned into wars though it’s beyond irony when Sinn Fein (a well known pacifist organisation) become concerned about Irish workers loosing their lives. At least Sinn Fein have the defence that they’re being logical in their position; there’s clearly no point engaging in a struggle to remove British Capitalism from one corner of Ireland if you’re going to simultaneously allow European Capitalism in through the back door. The motivation of the Green Party (technically the largest component of the No side) is less easy to fathom especially as their colleagues in government in Germany are totally behind the project.

The referendum is taking place in an environment of public apathy and cynicism towards politicians exacerbated by some recent judicial findings of large-scale corruption in politics. Interest in the political process by workers is generally at a low ebb and this disillusion can only be reinforced by “debates” such as have occurred on this issue. Real meaningful change to peoples’ lives can only take place when the root causes of the problems facing humanity are considered on a worldwide scale.

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