Friday 26 August 2016

Ireland sails into perilous waters after the 'No' vote

It would be tragic if the Lisbon defeat led to a vote on Ireland's future within the EU, writes Con Houlihan


Published 13/07/2008 | 00:00

'I know men and women who resent the smoking ban. I understand them... the fabric of life in rural Ireland is in tatters'
'I know men and women who resent the smoking ban. I understand them... the fabric of life in rural Ireland is in tatters'

'The people' is the most abused term in the language. It got an unusually severe battering in the aftermath of the referendum. The headlines told us that the people had voted 'No'. This was repeated so often that it was funny.

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It wasn't logical: the 46 per cent that voted 'Yes' were people too. And the 53 per cent who voted 'No' were only 53 per cent of the total vote. By coincidence the turnout was 53 per cent too.

What about the 47 per cent who didn't vote at all? Long ago, when I was very active down in Kerry, I analysed the number of people who didn't vote. I took 500 as a sample in Castle Island Boys' National School. The register in that polling station was roughly half country and half town. And I went to great trouble to find out about the 20 per cent who didn't vote.

Some were no longer in this country. Some were no longer in this world. Some were too far out of home to vote and probably voted elsewhere. Some people were ill and some were infirm. Some people were apathetic.

And in the end, I found out that of those who could vote and didn't vote, most were illiterate and they were too frightened of being humiliated at the polling station.

This breakdown was probably true of all small towns

and the surrounding countryside, but it may not be a good analysis in the context of cities and big towns.

Why did 53 per cent vote 'No'? Some of the reasons are obvious: Many women were afraid that their men folk would be conscripted into a European Union army. There is no such army. The Republic is a member of the United Nations and must contribute military in proportion to its numbers for peacekeeping and humanitarian aid. The fear of conscription was an obvious factor.

Then there was all kinds of talk that the Lisbon Treaty would diminish our independence, that in some way we would be less democratic.

Gerry Adams was very eloquent about this aspect. It was like hearing Robert Mugabe talking about world hunger.

The 'No' campaign wasn't without its brighter moments: That famous little old lady was seen outside a rural polling station in Limerick holding up a placard telling us 'The Pope says Vote 'No'."

There were obvious domestic factors: Many people had reason to worry about health and education and public transport. These factors, however, were present at the recent general election but didn't bring down the Government.

One couldn't help feeling that some voters were having a go at the Government, but only for the time being. It is quite likely that if you had a general election soon, the old figures would recur: Fianna Fail would have 40 per cent, Fianna Gael would have about 28 per cent and Labour about 12 per cent.

The Civil War is casting a long shadow. In most other countries the main parties are divided by different philosophies. In the Republic we are still fighting the war that began in 1922.

Let us return to the term "the people". If you are innocent, you would see men and women and youths and maidens coming down from the hills and up from the valleys and flowing along the plains all decked out in green and with eyes bright in their desire to vote 'No' -- but of course, it wasn't that way at all.

The truth is that the 'No' vote was made up of all classes of people, and it wasn't all a vote against the Lisbon Treaty. Some people complain that the Government are taking away civil liberties.

I know men and women who resent the smoking ban. I understand them. They work long hours at jobs that are not well paid. They look forward in the evening to having the anodynes of alcohol and tobacco. And they regard it as a civil right.

Then there are people who are decent and intelligent and who believe that the laws about drink and driving are self-defeating.

Whatever about the anti-smoking law and the drink- driving law, one thing is certain: The fabric of life in rural Ireland is in tatters and the Government must take some of the blame for this.

The closing down of post offices is anti-social because they were rural centres of great importance. Many rural pubs are being forced to close. We are living in an Ireland that bears little resemblance to the Ireland of 50 years ago.

I campaigned against our entrance to the Common Market. I and a few friends even published a booklet about it. We believed in the unification of Europe but we thought that the Republic wasn't ready.

We foresaw that many small farmers would be forced off the land. I had seen this for myself in France. I knew many a proud peasant who were working in factories in Paris. They were literally displaced persons.

Perhaps the momentum of economics would have forced the small farmers off their land even if we hadn't entered the Common Market. I do not know. We are now very much a part of the European Union. I believe that we could exist outside it, but we would be a very poor country.

The gains have been substantial, even if many of them didn't filter down to the poorer classes. What can the Government do now in the context of the Lisbon Treaty?

If a second referendum failed, it could lead to a vote on the big question of whether "the people" wished to stay in the EU or not. That could be tragic.

There is another danger: Tony Blair has almost certainly handed over power to the Conservatives. When they get in, it is possible that they may turn their back on the EU.

When Blair sent British troops into Iraq, he was acting illegally an immorally. It would have been far better for him to send troops to Zimbabwe to protect the descendants of the people who made Rhodesia the pearl of Africa.

The Government has been rightly blamed for their very weak campaign in the referendum. It has been accused of arrogance. I believe they suffered from complacency.

It wasn't surprising: The combined forces of Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael and Labour and the Catholic Church and the Farmers' Association should have won, but the 'No' campaign began last January and was well conducted and cleverly sloganed. Telling people to vote 'No' if they didn't understand was a clever stroke.

What can I say about Brian Cowen? I recall a story about Matt Busby interviewing a goalkeeper. He said: "I know you are good. But are you lucky?"

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