• The Irish Campaign: A New Version of the French "No" Victory?

  • By Raquel Garrido | 27 May 09
  • In the same week in which the French Parliament ratified the Lisbon Treaty, brutally ignoring the democratic “no” vote of 2005, the Irish Coalition against the EU Constitution (CAEUC), formally launched its campaign against the Treaty. Amazingly, out of the 27 member states, Ireland is the only one organising a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which makes the Irish vote crucial not only for the Irish, but also for all of the countries of the EU, and especially, of course, for those who have had their “no” vote ignored, that is the French and the Dutch.

    The CAEUC has been preparing this civic debate for two years, since the time the EU Constitution was supposed to be ratified by referendum. The members of the Coalition have profited from this delay by becoming very familiar with the text itself and its precise consequences for Ireland.

    At the launch of the campaign on February 7 in Dublin, a leaflet was circulated with all the specifics, that is the references, in the Lisbon Treaty, that demonstrate that the Treaty confirms and deepens the undemocratic and anti-social character of the EU. Compared to the Constitutional Treaty, the provisions on military issues are worse, which is in direct defiance of Ireland’s neutrality. This violation of one of the Irish people’s fundamental values is a shocking aspect of the Lisbon Treaty on which the Coalition is focusing, with the especially active help of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA).

    The actions they have chosen in 2008 are directly inspired by the French “no” campaign. After the 2005 period, the CAEUC has clarified its left-wing identity. Aware of the conservative rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, they have chosen not to form an alliance with elements of the right. The arguments developed are therefore directly linked to a progressive assessment of how the EU institutions are at the service of European capitalism, for example the latest rulings by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on freedom of association and collective bargaining. Speaking at the launch event, Jimmy Kelly, Regional Secretary of UNITE, was very precise in his description of how the ECJ Viking and Laval cases of December 2007 would directly affect the Irish collective bargaining system, as it had prioritised the EU “fundamental right” of free-competition clearly over other fundamental rights to organise and freely to determine the unions’ actions for purposes of negotiating collective agreements. The result of the recent merger between AMICUS and ATGWU (T&G), UNITE is a cross-border union, organising millions of workers throughout Britain and Ireland; it is now the UK’s biggest union. Regional UNITE’s voting against the Lisbon Treaty and helping explain how it contradicts the interests of workers is a crucial feature of the Irish referendum, especially because the Labour Party has been slow to understand the Treaty’s real effects on labour. In a quite naïve statement on February 6, before the National Forum on Europe, a cross-party institutionalised forum on Europe and Ireland’s role in it (www.forumoneurope.ie/), Eamon Gilmore, the leader of the Irish Labour Party, was indulging in wishful thinking when he announced that the adoption of the Charter on Fundamental Rights was going to prevent future Vikings and Lavals.

    Although it is important to note that all parts of the progressive camp have the same point of departure, that is, a negative view of the ECJ rulings and the prevalence of free-competition over labour rights, the CAEUC is correct in offering a precise criticism of the Charter’s solution to the problem. As one can read on the CAEUC website (www.caeuc.org/), the “weak and flawed” Charter of Fundamental Rights is one of the reasons why the Irish “should vote no”. Invited to speak as a socialist involved in the French “no” campaign, I developed another argument that we could have used in France if we had to deal with a new referendum, which is about Britain’s negotiated opt-out of the Charter. Indeed, the essence of a fundamental rule is precisely that it is not optional. It is deeply enshrined in a given system, such that no one can escape from it and everyone is entitled to be protected by it. Britain’s opt-out is not only bad for the British, it is a message intended for everyone, and especially the ECJ, about the precise nature of these rules. The Charter, in reality, is one of “optional rights”, not fundamental rights. The implicit hierarchy of EU rules, which make free competition, the rights of corporations and free trade the principal values within the normative system, is therefore not questioned but rather confirmed by the Lisbon Treaty and its amendments.

    If the progressive camp agrees on the need for a reversal of this hierarchy, it differs on the reform strategy to adopt for this purpose. The “social-democratic” movement, which is a makeshift way of defining a political family that ranges from Anglo-Saxon Labour to French socialists, including Scandinavian, Nordic, German and other social-democrats, is very divided, as was clear in the case of the French “no” vote, which was decisively strengthened by the socialist votes, and in the less vocal but no less effective social-democrat contribution to the Dutch “no”. The division has to do, among other things, with the prospects of renegotiating a better European text. In Ireland, the question is whether the possibilities of achieving a better treaty are helped or hindered by a “yes” vote for the Lisbon Treaty. The answer to that is quite clear: a “yes” vote will close off any sort of debate for a long time to come.

    Unfortunately, the media and government have been displacing this interesting strategic debate by a biased and artificial confrontation between “pro-“ and “anti”-Europeans , just as the media and government had done in France. It is, of, course, easier for the promoters of the Lisbon Treaty to confront extreme right conservative opponents. as we see in France, Denmark, England and many other European countries. In January, one newsdaily manipulated the facts in order to create the impression of a connection between the Irish “no” campaigners and French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Fortunately, the attempt failed, as the slander that the “no” groups had invited Le Pen to Ireland proved to be utterly without foundation.

    The government is frightened that the same reasons that motivated Irish voters to reject the Nice Treaty in 1992, along with a fair debate now on the goals of the EU and the interests of the great majority of Irish citizens in respect to the actual course of EU integration, might result in a “no” majority against the Lisbon Treaty.

    Far from confronting this issue with honesty and clarity, the government and media use deception and disinformation. The explanatory material published by the Forum on Europe is far from neutral, and clearly uses very biased interpretations in support of a “yes” vote. Sinn Féin had proposed a few hundred amendments to this official document, which were overridden by the Forum. The mandate of the Referendum Commission,which included presenting arguments for and against referendum proposals, as well as the fostering and promoting of debate or discussion on them, has been seriously vitiated before the upcoming referendum by removing these functions. The French government had a similar approach in 2005, when it tried to prevent the dissemination of information; however, the public was well aware of the manoeuvre and eventually sanctioned it in the polls.

    On March 10th Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern finally announced a date for the referendum: the second week of June. Three months remain for debate, which is very little considering that the consolidated text of the reformed treaties is not yet available in Ireland, and it certainly will not be sent out to each and every household.

    Together with other smaller left-wing parties, Sinn Féin is a pillar of the CAEUC. The party was instrumental in limiting alliances to the left only, which represents an evolution from their 2005 position. Furthermore, MEP Mary Lou Mac Donald and former head of European Affairs Eoin O’Broin bring a strong competence in European issues acquired from their EP experience. Besides the CAEUC, Sinn Féin has also engaged in a country-wide door-to-door campaign against the Treaty. Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin questioned Bertie Ahern on whether he ruled out a “Lisbon 2” referendum (there had been a “Nice 2” Referendum). The Taoiseach refused to rule out this possibility. The public reaction to this undemocratic stance will presumably be reflected in the referendum.

    On the other hand, disappointment was expressed in the ranks of the Green Party and Labour Youth, two organisations that had opposed the EU Constitution. The Green Party being in the government coalition today, most of its leaders support the government position, although they could not obtain the two-thirds majority of members needed to determine an official party line approving the Lisbon Treaty. Fortunately, former MEP Patricia Mc Kenna is trying to save her party’s honour by being totally consistent with former positions, and by being very active in the campaign. (There are similarly voices from the UK Green Party opposing the Treaty.) Also, although it is known that individual Labour Youth members oppose the Treaty (as is probably the case with some members of the Labour Party itself), the organisation voted in favour of a “yes” position.

    As we see, many of the ingredients of the French campaign are present in the current Irish situation, except the notable break with party line by Socialist Senator Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the socialist members of his organisation, Pour la République Sociale. Text and arguments in hand, the Progressive “no” in Ireland is in a situation to lead a civic reaction of the Irish people. With a view to uniting all the left, and only the left, the Communist Party of Ireland, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Workers Party and Sinn Féin have made an important strategic decision. Including the anti-war movement, the peace movement, and a strong and regional union, the CAEUC has a direct link with representative social movements. All these factors may lead to a reversal of current opinion polls favouring ratification, although a majority of voters still have not decided... just as in France three months before the 2005 “no” vote!


    Raquel Garrido, Coordinator of International and European Relations,Pour la République Sociale.