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The political classes must now be humble

THE people have given their verdict. Politicians must respect that verdict. But whether it is a verdict on what is in the Lisbon Treaty or a verdict on the unease people feel on a range of challenges facing post-Celtic Tiger Ireland is at least an open question.

It is indisputable that sections of the electorate were influenced by issues that are not in the treaty at all. No Irish Mammy wants her sons conscripted into a European Army. Very few citizens -- if any -- want to see Brussels oblige us to legalise abortion. Very few Irish workers and no company based in Ireland wants to pay higher taxes. Of course, voting for Lisbon would not change the present position on any of these issues. But try telling that to some of the people we met during the campaign.

The fact is, the No campaign had planted these (and other) distortions in the public mind before the Yes campaign got its act together. The Government in particular was dewy-eyed as it waved goodbye to the country's most popular taoiseach and welcomed in song the new incumbent. We couldn't even persuade the outgoing taoiseach to confirm on the record the date of the referendum.

Meanwhile, a mystery man was emerging out of the West with an apparently unlimited war chest to oppose the treaty. By the time the singing was over in Clara, it was already too late. It was as if the Government only togged out for the second half, and even then some of the first XV had a very indifferent game.

"Trust me and vote yes" no longer does it for the Irish electorate. A very great many people don't trust the political class. They are in a very cranky mood. Didn't the government tell them that the EU is to blame for schools having to pay water charges and for fishermen not being able to make a living? People can't be sure that their jobs are safe; petrol is more expensive, the contents of the shopping basket cost more and negative equity is back. Did we ever think we would again see stagflation? The Live Register has increased by a third in Tallaght over the last 12 months, and is not very much different throughout the country.

This was not very fertile territory for vague talk about re-shaping the institutions of the union. Vote Yes for a more streamlined Europe does not float many boats. Meanwhile, the No people were erecting one bogeyman after another.

The Yes campaigners were on the back foot, engaged almost full-time in rebutting the latest scare story. They had few tangible positives to sell: there would be no increase in headage payments; union recognition would not be guaranteed and wouldn't we be losing a commissioner? The fact that little Ireland would have equality around the Commission table with powerful Germany is ignored.

The Lisbon outcome in Ireland is likely to be negative for the country, for the political class and for the head of Government, Brian Cowen.

Taking Cowen first, it seems clear that he does not have the connection to urban dwellers that his predecessor enjoyed. Certainly Bertie Ahern would never have irritated the supporters of the two main opposition parties at the height of the campaign. Nor would he ever have admitted to not reading the treaty.

For the political class, the fact that a ragbag of minority voices, opportunists and populists, Sinn Fein and a Western Messiah could win the day should give pause for thought.

The first lesson must be that the debate about legitimate and meritorious ambitions for Europe must no longer be restricted to a small, expert circle and to a language that excludes outsiders.

For a country accustomed to punching above its weight, we now face the cold shoulder and a loss of influence. This can only be mitigated by Irish diplomacy rising to the challenge as never before.

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Their challenge will be how to wrest concessions from the 26 on the issues that caused the electorate to vote No when most of these issues are either not in the treaty or have already been met.

The people have spoken, and the people are sovereign. A healthy dollop of humility on the part of those of us who counselled a Yes vote is appropriate. As politicians, we cannot escape the fact that the outcome is a failure for the political class -- most prominently a failure for the Government that chose this time to hold the referendum and failed to sell it.

We have now entered a period of uncertainty at a time when the economic environment is at its most uncertain for 20 years. Facile talk about sending our ministers "to negotiate a better deal" is disingenuous.

Little Irelanders must accept that today's biggest challenges -- climate change, energy security and drugs-trafficking -- cannot be addressed by countries acting alone. The Democratic Programme of the first Dail insisted that permanence of government is secured only by "the willing adhesion of the people". The most sobering reflection of all is that the people of Ireland -- and perhaps those of Europe -- do not adhere to the EU.

If that is so, it is the responsibility of politicians and of those who inhabit the institutions. Trying to engage the electorate only when a referendum is unavoidable is simply not enough.

Pat Rabbitte is a Labour TD and former party leader


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