Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland 12th June 2008


Corinne Deloy,  

Fondation Robert Schuman,  

Helen Levy


13 May 2008

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Deloy Corinne

Corinne Deloy

Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).

Robert Schuman Fondation

Fondation Robert Schuman

Levy Helen

Helen Levy

The treaty modifying the treaty on the European Union and the Treaty establishing the European Community was signed on 13th December 2007 in Lisbon by the Heads of Government of the 27 Member States of the European Union.

If it is ratified by the Member States it will come into force on 1st January 2009.

Ireland is the only Member State to submit its ratification to referendum, a procedure that is made obligatory by articles 46 and 47 of the Irish Constitution.

The referendum will take place on 12th June next.

On 6th March last the Oireachtas (Parliament) published the 28th amendment to the Constitution authorising the organisation of a referendum on the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. This text recalls that Ireland obtained an exemption clause with regard to its participation in the European Defence policy and like its British neighbour with regard to decisions taken by the qualified majority in terms of police and justice. This most recent exemption will be reviewed in three years time after the treaty has been in force three years, i.e. on 1st January 2012.

Ireland is a symbol of the Europe's success. Thirty-five years after its accession the country that was one of the poorest in Europe has become one of the richest (behind Luxembourg) in terms of GDP per capita (+ 10% in comparison with the EU average). Dublin is the most dynamic economy in the euro area, with one of the lowest unemployment rates on the continent, a balanced budget and an almost inexistent public debt. After having received European Union subsidies for many years Ireland is now a net contributor.

To date the country has had six referenda on European issues: the first in 1972 with regard to the country's accession to the European Economic Community (83.1% voted in favour), the second came in 1987 with regard to the Single Act (69.9% approved it), the third focussed on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 (69.1% voted "yes"). During the 5th referendum in 2001 the Irish initially rejected the Nice Treaty (53.87% voted "no") before approving it by 62.89% in another referendum in 2002.

The Irish authorities who learnt much after the referendum on the Nice Treaty in 2001 and after the French and Dutch rejections in 2005 of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, are convinced about what is at stake; as a consequence they decided to launch a major information campaign in time for the vote on 12th June. Over 5 million € have been dedicated to the information campaign. A 32 page guide (in English and Gaelic) to the Lisbon Treaty will be sent to every Irish home and a website ( has been opened to provide all the vital information on the text as well as the way the referendum will be undertaken.

Most of the political parties have been mobilised in favour of a positive vote. "In Dublin 42 years ago, John Fitzgerald Kennedy quoted an Irish poet, George William Russell and said "I really believe in the future of Ireland and I believe that this island has a glorious future and that when our time has come we shall have something to give to the world." Kennedy ended by saying "Ireland's time has come. You have something to give to the world and the future will be peaceful and free." In a different context, which is safer and more prosperous than the one John Fitzgerald Kennedy lived in I shall repeat his words. On 12th June the Irish people will send a message to the rest of Europe and more widely to the world. I hope this will confirm your desire to live in a more efficient, more responsible Europe," declared the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern (Fianna Fail, FF) on 24th October last, just a few days after the adoption of the treaty by the European Council. On the same day he thanked the opposition parties for their support and acknowledged their unfailing commitment to Europe.

But before the campaign had started the political arena was shaken by the Bertie Ahern's announcement that he would be leaving the government. On 2nd April last the Prime Minister announced that he would leave office as Prime Minister and as leader of Fianna Fail on 6th May. Suspected of having received 47,000 Irish pounds (62, 000 €) in 1994, Bertie Ahern is under trial at present in Mahon with regard to this. The Taoiseach who said "he was concerned that these personal issues would impede the government and the party's work", said, "I will not allow my personal problems or my financial difficulties to distract attention from the important work that has to be done. What I am announcing comes entirely from a desire to refocus political impetus in Ireland."

Outgoing Finance Minister, Brian Cowen (FF), who was designated by Bertie Ahern and who was the only candidate to succeed him, was appointed on 9th April as Prime Minister and leader of Fianna Fail. He took office on 7th May indicating that the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty was his priority. Leader of his party's campaign during the referendum in 2001 Brian Cowen said that he did not want to find himself in a position where he had to travel to Brussels to explain the failure of another popular consultation. Some analysts believe that the departure of Bertie Ahern might prove beneficial for the referendum result since the Prime Minister's resignation will make it possible to reposition the debate on politics and forget domestic affairs to some extent and even to avoid a sanction vote against the government.

A great majority of the political parties are calling for the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty: Fianna Fail, Fine Gael (FG), the main opposition party led by Enda Kenny, the Labour Party (Lab) led by Pat Rabbitte and the Democratic-Progressive Party (PD) led by Michael McDowell. The Green Party led by Trevor Sargent is divided over the subject but it voted 63% in favour during its congress on 19th January last. However given this division the Green Party will not take part in the electoral debate even though some of its members have been allowed to be personally involved in one camp or another. The six Green MPs and 2 senators have said they support the "yes" vote. Amongst the parties represented in Parliament only Sinn Fein (SF) led by Gerry Adams is against the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.

Before his resignation Prime Minister Bertie Ahern insisted on promoting the responsibility which weighs on Ireland and repeated that on 12th June all eyes will be turned on Dublin. Several times he recalled everything that Ireland owed to Europe: "Thanks to the single market, Europe has enabled Ireland to make a great economic leap forwards and to increase its living standards. It is Europe that has allowed us to achieve the top of the ladder in terms of labour, environmental laws and equality between men and women." He concluded by saying "I think that the Irish will approve the Lisbon Treaty because it is in our national interests and also those of Europe."

"The Lisbon Treaty promotes the principles that the Irish people hold close to their hearts and which the government believes to be vital for the country. Ireland should not be afraid and has everything to win by supporting the treaty," maintained Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern (FF) who became Justice Minister on 7th May. He notably highlighted the right to citizens' initiative – one million citizens from a significant number of Member States can ask the European Commission to draw up a draft law. The head of Irish diplomacy has warned several times of the danger that the "no" voted carried saying that the rejection of the treaty would lead to a serious crisis within the European Union. "The alternative for us is to impede the European Union's progress and to provoke another period of crisis and uncertainty within the 27. It would of no benefit to us," he said.

The Electoral Campaign: the "yes" camp

European Affairs Minister, Dick Roche accuses the treaty's opponents, notably Sinn Fein, of spreading "lies" about the Lisbon Treaty such as the threat that it poses with regard to military neutrality. The latter, after a long fight for independence against the English, has been part of the Constitution since 1937. The national army comprises 8,000 men who only officially intervene in peacekeeping missions led by the UN. Ireland is also a member of NATO's partnership for peace. In addition to this 400 Irish soldiers are part of EUFOR, the EU's operational force in Chad.

"The Irish Constitution demands that any military commitment be submitted to referendum and there is a triple locking system which means that any military deployment has to be accepted by the government, parliament and the UN," he stressed. Aware of the difficulty in fighting against the damage caused by words, the government suggested in March to amend the Constitution and to re-confirm the country's military neutrality. Dick Roche stressed that there was no plan B and that it would be impossible to re-negotiate the text.

As for the opposition, Enda Kenny, leader of Fine Gael, specifically asked the Irish not to use the referendum as a protest vote against the government nor as a means to express their disgust about the revelations made by the Mahon Court. "It is not a referendum on Bertie Ahern but on the future of our children," he declared saying that "a "no vote" would lead to the loss of Ireland's influence in Europe."

The Irish Alliance for Europe ( launched its electoral campaign on 2nd May. Created in January 2008 this civil society organisation is committed in favour of the "yes" and rallies union members, businessmen and entrepreneurs (Business Alliance for Europe), academics, students, farmers, politicians etc. It is chaired by former Finance and Labour Minister and former Labour Party leader (1997-2002) Ruairu Quinn and led by Brendan Liely, former director of the Irish European Movement. The Association of small companies has also committed in favour of the "yes" and is promoting everything that Ireland owes to the European Union, notably that the country exports 80% of the goods and services it produces, the creation of one million jobs over the last 35 years – a figure so high that some of the Irish who emigrated came back home (one third of those aged 35-45 according to the Economic and Social Research Institute). "The European Union is vital to Ireland's economy and trade which is one of the major exporting countries in the world," she insisted.

Ireland which is the only country to be organising a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, has been visited by several European leaders in support of the "yes" vote. On 7th and 8th April the President of the European Parliament Hans-Gert Pöttering travelled to Dublin, on 14thApril German Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled there, on 17th April it was the turn of European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso. They all wanted to reassure the Irish. "I would like to put down the myth of an all powerful European Union. The Union does not establish taxes nor does it manage the social services, healthcare nor the education systems of the Member States," declared Hans-Gert Pöttering, insisting that the Lisbon Treaty will in no way oblige Ireland to integrate NATO, nor will it allow abortion or modify its company taxes, which lie at 12.5% and be amongst the lowest in Europe. It has played a major role in Ireland's economic success, leading to the establishment of many companies, notably American, in a country that has the major benefit of being Anglophone and of having qualified labour resources. Dublin watches jealously over its 12.5% tax rate whilst France and Germany are fighting for fiscal harmonisation across Europe.

"Another thing is quite clear: no Member State can be forced to accept a fiscal reform that it does not agree with," said José Manuel Barroso. The latter was received by a major contingent of farmers protesting against the EU's suggestions made during negotiations with the WTO which they believe are threatening cattle farming and milk production. "The European Commission has betrayed the farmers", declared Padraig Walshe, chairman of the Irish Farmers' Association which comprises 85,000 members, saying that he absolutely could not support the "yes" vote.

The "NO" camp

The supporters of the "NO" camp have taken a stance on six points: abortion, military neutrality, the fiscal system, social issues, immigration and Ireland's position in the future EU. The far right and groups fighting against immigration maintain that the Lisbon Treaty would withdraw Ireland's control of its borders. "We see it as a blank cheque," declared Aine Ni Chonaill, spokesperson for the Immigration Control Platform, questioning the Fundamental Rights Charter, which, in his eyes, obliges the Member States to accept asylum seekers and to grant them the right to work.

Many have expressed their concern about the future powers their country would in fact enjoy. They fear that Ireland's vote and the number of votes it has at present will be reduced that the biggest States will dominate the debates and impose their decisions. "The new voting system within the Council of Ministers reduces our influence by 60% whilst it increases that of Germany by 100% and that of France by 50%. The President of Europe will not be interested in what we think because he will not need our vote, likewise with regard to the Foreign Minister. The Union is also going to become a legal entity and will have exclusive competence over areas that affect people's lives. The ratification of the Lisbon Treaty will make the decisions taken by the new European Union more important than those included in the Irish Constitution. It will be too much power," declares Declan Ganley, chairman of Rivada Networks; he is a businessman who qualifies himself as pro-European and founder of the organisation Libertas that he presents as a new European movement whose aim is to defend democracy and transparency within European institutions. Libertas is calling for a "no" vote and launched its campaign on 12th March with three slogans: "Europe has been beneficial to Ireland, let's not change anything. Vote "no" to the Lisbon Treaty", "Facts, not politics" and "Lisbon Treaty. Good for them. But bad for us." He believes that the "no" is the "only chance of preventing Europe falling into the hands of bureaucrats who have not been elected." Opposition on the part of company heads is particularly worrying. This is a first in a country in which company heads have always been supportive of European progress.

The only parliamentary party to be against the treaty is Sinn Fein which insists that the text was badly negotiated and that it grants too much power to the European Union, reducing Irelands ability to oppose decisions that are not in its interest. "The treaty grants too much power to the European institutions," repeats Gerry Adams. Sinn Fein, the far left party which is campaigning on the challenge made to military neutrality, a lack of democracy and how the treaty will affect Irish sovereignty. They are also questioning the attacks against social rights which the text supposedly includes - it accuses the treaty of wanting to destroy public services and of promoting privatisations. "We cannot support a treaty that gives power to people who are not elected and who have no responsibilities, who destroy public services, oblige Ireland to join a common defence system and who weaken its voice in the international arena," maintains the party. "We (Sinn Fein) are not against the Lisbon Treaty because we are euro-sceptics but because we are ambitious for Europe and because we believe that collectively and democratically Europeans can do great things together," reads the campaign literature distributed by the party which has chosen "Ireland deserves better. Vote no to the Lisbon Treaty" as their battle cry.

Sinn Fein which published an alternative guide to the European text wants to ease voters' guilt and repeats that "the European institutions will not collapse if the Irish reject the Lisbon Treaty," or that "the Irish (if they vote no) will not become the pariah of Europe". "Contrary to what the government says it does not matter how many people vote "no" to the referendum, Ireland's place in the European Union is guaranteed. It is possible to be pro-European and be against the Lisbon Treaty," says Sinn Fein spokesperson Aengus O'Snodaigh.

On the left 11 organisations (Sinn Fein, the Socialist Party (SP), the Workers' Party (WP), the Communist Party (CPI), the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP), the anti-war NGO Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA) led by Roger Cole, member of the Labour Party, People before Profit, the People's Movement, the National Platform, Eirigi and the Irish Anti-War Movement) have created an association ( and a campaign committee for the NO vote.

A poll undertaken by the Referendum Commission, published on 28th April reveals that four in five voters (80%) did not know what was in the Lisbon Treaty. 5% of those interviewed say they were informed and 15% aware. The authorities very much hope that the campaign and greater knowledge of the text will swell the ranks of the "yes" vote supporters. "Many doubt what it really means in terms of danger if they vote "no"," stresses Alan Dukes, former director of the Irish Institute for European Affairs. Even the former President of the European Parliament (2002-2004), Pat Cox has said that the supporters of the "yes" vote had not found the means to mobilise voters. European Commissioner for the Internal Market and Services, Charlie McCreevy (FF) warned that it would be necessary to "deliver real battle to ensure victory." The electoral campaign has not really started and some analysts say the low degree of enthusiasm shown by the Irish is associated with their lack of knowledge.

The most recent poll by Red C between 3rd and 7th May, published on 11th May last by the Sunday Business Post reveals that 38% of voters support the "yes" vote (+ 3 points in comparison with the previous poll dated 27th April). Slightly over a quarter of those interviewed (28%) say they support the "no" vote (- 3 points) and finally one third (34%) say they have not decided. If the latter are not considered the "yes" wins by 58%, versus 42% for the "no". The rise of the "yes" vote can be explained by the increase in the number of Lisbon Treaty supporters who have come over from the opposition, notably those close to Fine Gael.

"The fate of the treaty will depend on turn out. If it is high the "yes" vote will easily win. If it is low the document is dead," says Damian Loscher, TNS-MRBI director. Low turn out was one of the reasons why the "no" vote won in the referendum in 2001. Men, company leaders, workers involved in the unions, workers and young people are more in favour of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Politically, supporters of the Prime Minister's party Fianna Fail, are also more in favour of the "yes" vote. However the" no" supporters are to be found amongst the farmers, the most virulent defenders of Irish neutrality, those close to Sinn Fein and those living in the poorest areas (the centre, the west and on the border with Northern Ireland). The official campaign started on 12th May last.

Reminder of the Previous European Referenda organised in Ireland

Source : and Robert Schuman Foundation

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