The damage done by Lisbon re-run will not be easily fixed
Published 03/10/2009 | 05:00
An event of lasting political significance has taken place with the vote on the second Lisbon Treaty referendum. Whatever the outcome, those who have voted 'No' did so having been disenfranchised. The act of doing this took place more than a year ago, when the Government -- without any guarantees at all for what they did -- broke trust with a national democratic decision, one that is enshrined in our Constitution and should have an absolute value, as referendums have had in the past.
Ignoring this was a government act, pursued immediately and energetically by Brian Cowen, without debate, and aggressively backed by Micheal Martin. After initial prevarication by the leaders of the two main parties, with Eamon Gilmore saying first that the Lisbon Treaty was dead and then changing his mind, Fine Gael and Labour completed the process of disenfranchisement of those who had voted 'No'.
With the exception of a small number of them, who were Sinn Fein supporters, more than 800,000 people, representing close to one-third of registered voters, found themselves without a voice in the Dail.
The three main parties, which in the previous general election had represented the overwhelming majority of voters, chose to turn their backs on those voters who had won in the referendum. Neither the victory of those voting 'No', nor their growing concerns at the legality, fairness and constitutional conformity of what followed, carried any democratic weight at all. This was disenfranchisement of a high order.
The word enfranchise means 'to set free' and is generally related to the achievement under any democracy of representation by the people in their parliaments. The decision to go back on what a majority had decided was a deliberate removal of this right. The European Union connived in what was being done and became party to it. They did this initially with a series of formalities designed to reassure some Irish voters about certain Lisbon Treaty fears. These fears were 'researched' and then nominated by the Government. The European Union moved on from this formal behaviour to an involvement in Irish political affairs that included direct campaigning, funding support for the 'Yes' campaign and the deliberate manipulation of facts about the Lisbon Treaty.
I believe there are many people who genuinely supported the 'Yes' vote who regret a great deal of what was done in their names and would like it to have been otherwise. If the re-run of the referendum can be justified at all, then the least one should have expected was that it would be carried out in a fair and balanced way. This was not the case at all. Wherever the campaign process could be loaded in favour of a 'Yes' vote it was so loaded.
This has tainted the outcome, whatever that may be, irreversibly. Worse still, there is an official determination to ignore all of this. Regulation by the Referendum Commission, restraint on illegal involvement by European funding agencies and by the Commission, lack of proper balance by the Government and the blatant misinformation and lying that has gone on, will either be sustained or passed over in the electoral heat of the process.
Worst of all, however, for those both in power and in opposition, is the inescapable fact that a vacuum surrounding those who voted 'No', not once but twice, has been created. This right has been defended since it cannot ever be challenged and will go on to express itself into the future in ways that are at present a mystery.
What has not been defended is the framework within which they would normally exercise that right. Guilty of this are the two parties in power and the two main Opposition parties, and their ignoring of this is an outrage.
Because of this, those who have voted 'No' this time round, now represent what I would describe as a 'Fourth Force' in Irish politics. This body of opinion, angry, cheated, abused and widely dismissed, probably does not represent as many people as the three main parties -- hence the name that I give it -- but the people involved are sufficient, if they organise and decide to act politically in the future, to make a significant impact on the prospects of all other parties. There are many people in the country, both 'Yes' and 'No' voters, who would welcome this. Such people have dismissed Brian Cowen and all that he stands for. They have poor regard for Enda Kenny's ability to lead Fine Gael effectively, even less regard for his prospects as a future taoiseach and none at all for his performance as opposition leader, in protecting the franchise of the public generally.
These people find fault also with the Labour Party, seeing its failure to resolve where it stands and how it relates to the public on this issue as a serious dereliction of public duty.
As a major party in opposition its joint action with Fine Gael, and even worse, with Fianna Fail, has compounded the isolation of a sizable body of opinion.
Though the same disenfranchised people may have voted alongside Sinn Fein -- a party we asked to follow a democratic line, which they have tried to do -- this Republican political grouping will not fill the vacuum.
As to the European Union, its troubles with the Lisbon Treaty are far from over. As a mechanism, the treaty has not united Europe. It has divided the 500 million population and the division has worsened under the atmosphere of economic crisis. The gaze Europe has turned on Ireland is of a very mixed kind. Brian Cowen and his 'Yes' campaign have tried to represent this in a deeply negative way. Friends of mine in Germany, Britain and other countries see it differently, and view us in a new and not a dismissive light.
Ireland has been divided deeply by this electoral campaign and the damage done will not easily pass over.