05/06/2008 - D-7
Just one week before the vote the outcome of the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty remains uncertain in Ireland. Although most of the polls forecast a win for the "YES", turn out has become one of the main issues in the last days of the electoral campaign. Low turnout led to the victory of the "NO" in the first referendum on the Nice Treaty on 7th June 2001.
Supporters and opponents to the Lisbon Treaty share the same opinion. "The polls indicate that most voters support the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty but this is not what is at stake. What counts is turn out. We already experienced this in the first referendum on the Nice Treaty, low turn out led to the victory of the "NO" vote," warned Garret Fitzgerald, former Prime Minister (June 1981-March 1982 and 1982-1987) who stressed that the campaign for the YES vote had come extremely late. The priority is the same on the side of those against the treaty: "What people say to researchers does not mean they will go to vote. Knowing whether they will turn out on 12th June is something else. Our greatest wish is to make people go and vote during the referendum," said Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
Abortion, military neutrality, company tax, social issues, sovereignty and Ireland's place in the European Union are the main issues under debate during the campaign.
"Every time there is a referendum on a European issue we see groups emerge claiming that conspiracies are being made against the Irish people. These groups are an intolerant minority who represent no one. Voters must resist this type of intimidation," declared the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen of Fianna Fail. Indeed the worst rumours are going around: some say that the Lisbon Treaty will oblige Ireland to adopt nuclear energy, others that the country will have to increase its company tax (the latter is amongst the lowest in Europe – 12.5% - and it played a major role in the success of Ireland's economy); the nationalists claim that the text will herald the death of military neutrality (Ireland enjoys an exemption clause with regard to any participation in a joint European Defence), others are saying that the treaty will facilitate abortion (prohibited unless the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother or if there is danger of suicide). The truth is that none of these changes (not more one than the other, however small it might be) is included in the text being submitted to referendum and could never become a reality without the agreement of all of the Member States and their national Parliaments.
Another rumour which persists is the idea that a renegotiation of the Lisbon Treaty is possible and that there is a plan B. "Like me you know very well that there is always a B plan in politics," repeats Mary Lou McDonald, MEP (GUE, IE). She maintains that the Lisbon Treaty can and must be renegotiated. With this in mind she has drawn up a list of four issues for which Ireland has to achieve a modification of the text: the country's position in the European Commission, an increase in the number of votes granted to Ireland, the taxation system, neutrality (she demands that the EU signs a declaration to guarantee the rights of neutral States and says that "the Lisbon Treaty allows military alliances between Member States for the first time" and that "the EU Foreign Minister will have a diplomatic corps that will monitor Member States' foreign and military policies"). Paradoxically Sinn Fein defends Ireland's right to set company tax whilst the latter is the lowest in the European Union. "The European Union already controls the monetary policy and interest rates. It is hard to believe that it doesn't also want to create a European tax system," questions Mary Lou McDonald. Finally, because it is a far left party against any type of liberalism Sinn Fein maintains that the Lisbon Treaty threatens the country's public health and education services.
"The text isn't perfect but it is the best we can hope for. Negotiations are over and those who say it can be re-negotiated are no longer in touch with reality," declared Prime Minister Brian Cowen. European Affairs Minister, Dick Roche (FF) went further saying that there would not "be a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty."
Supporters of the "YES" are looking to the future and try, sometimes with outbursts of doom and gloom, to raise voters' awareness of the effects the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty would be. "If the text is not ratified we shall be in the greatest uncertainty as far as the future of the European Union is concerned. In terms of political dynamism and the way we shall be considered, the situation will not be of advantage to us," said Prime Minister Brian Cowen on 2nd June. "Let's hope that the Lisbon Treaty will be ratified. If it is not we shall all have to pay the price," said European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso. "If there is a negative vote in Ireland or in any other Member State it will be very negative for the European Union," stresses Garret Fitzgerald, adding "we do not know exactly what the consequences will be. What will the other Member States do? Will they impede the reforms planned in the treaty or will they build a community of 26 from which the Irish will be excluded? We do not know." "A defeat for the "YES" will provoke chaos in the European Union and will threaten Ireland's interests," indicated Telecommunications, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Eamon Ryan (Green Party, GP). "I do not blame those who express their reticence with regard to certain aspects of the European Union. I still do not agree with them but I respect their courage and they are not always wrong. But given their approach to the treaty we should remember that neither Ireland nor the Irish will never be able to influence European policy by kicking at it, or by withdrawing from it or impeding it," stressed Charlie McCreevy, European Commissioner for the Internal Market and Services.
The adversaries of the Lisbon Treaty maintain, like the French opponents to the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe during the referendum on 29th May 2005, without providing any proof of what they were saying is true, that the text can be renegotiated and that there is a plan B. They carefully avoid saying that a rejection of the treaty would oblige the European Union to continue running with the system established by the Nice Treaty (26th February 2001), a text which Eurosceptics are extremely opposed to.
An argument broke out between Brian Cowen and the opposition after the Prime Minister said on 22nd May that he hoped all of the political parties shared the "the same European vocation as Fianna Fail." A poll by the institute RedC published by the Sunday Business Post on 25th May showed that although most Fianna Fail supporters said they were in favour of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty those close to Fine Gael (FG) the main opposition party led by Enda Kenny were more divided. Enda Kenny was angered by what Brian Cowen had said. MP Leo Varadkar (FG) warned the government that its attitude towards the opposition could only make victory for the YES more difficult: "Since March we have been undertaking an extremely lively campaign in favour of the YES vote to the Lisbon Treaty. Brian Cowen and the others do not really help when they talk like this." He asked Fine Gael supporters against the government, who are tempted by the NO vote to wait until the European and local elections in 2009 to express their discontent. Enda Kenny called on supporters to "think first of the country's interests," during the referendum on 12th June.
Labour Party leader (Lab) Eamon Gilmore sent a similar message to his supporters asking them to resist giving in to the temptation "of using the referendum to send out a warning to the government". "I think there are times in the country's interest that the Prime Minister should abstain from arguing with the opposition," he stressed. Opposition supporters are undoubtedly more tempted to vote "no" or abstain since the referendum is the first electoral test for Taoiseach Brian Cowen (FF) after becoming Prime Minister on 7th May.
Supporters of the Lisbon Treaty have received the support of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. "I call on the Irish to vote "YES". We need a strong Europe. I cannot imagine that Ireland would turn its back on Europe," he said on 27th May. The Federation of Irish Hoteliers asked its 60,000 employees to vote YES on 12th June emphasising the significant opportunities a strong, effective Europe offered. The Congress of Irish Unions also voted, by a small majority, in favour of supporting the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. The Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce of the USA in Dublin, Paul Rellis, spoke in favour of the "YES". "Ireland must stay at the heart of Europe, it is because it is in this position that it attracts American investments, the economic policies of those who support the NO, the far left and the far right would be disastrous for our country," he said. Finally the bishops of Ireland published a "pastoral paper" which, although not calling for people to vote in favour on 12th June, guarantees that the European text will change nothing to the legislation governing abortion applied at present in the country. On 6th June the Prime Minister called for a "Yes vote with enthusiasm" in the referendum in order to "safeguard employment".
On 3rd June on the Irish Public Radio (RTE), Padraig Walshe, chairman of the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA), called on to support the treaty, after Premier Minister took commitment on the WTO negotiations. According to a poll by RedC and the Farmers' Newspaper mid May 40% of farmers were going to vote for the ratification of the European text, 33% would vote against it and 27% still had not made their minds up.
The most important federation, the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), which represents 200,000 members, is refusing to support the YES on 12th June. "We do not support the watered down version of the treaty until our rights – in Ireland- are extended to all workers in Europe," declared its chairman Jack O'Connor.
Finally the European Referendum Campaign (ERC), that rallies non-governmental organisations of the various EU Member States and which is working for the NO has called on Europeans to demonstrate in front of the Embassies of Ireland in all countries "to congratulate the Irish on the organisation of this referendum which was refused to 487 million Europeans."
According to the last survey published on 6th June in the daily Irish Times, 35% of the people surveyed would vote "NO" and 30% "YES", 28% have still not made up their minds and 7% say they do not want to vote. It is the first time the NO percentage is higher than the YES. Indeed mi-may the "YES" still gathered 35% of the vote intentions, against 18% for the "NO", according to a survey from the same institute. The poll by RedC, published by the Sunday Business Post on 25th May shows that the YES is rising (41%, +3 points) although its progression is less than the NO (33%, +6) – which is however still a minority vote. The proportion of those who are undecided (-8 points) lay at 26%.
Two pieces of information: the difference between the "YES" and the "NO" has decreased and the opponents to ratification seem more mobilised than those who support the Lisbon Treaty.
Two vital questions will only be answered on 12th June: how many voters will turn out to vote? What will the undecided do on the day? Will Ireland choose to remain apart, or to exclude itself, from the European Union?