Ireland : Lisbon Treaty ‘No’ vote delivers major shock for political and big business Establishment

Privatisation and workers’ rights key issues of debate in referendum campaign

In a higher than normal turnout for a referendum, 53.1%, the Lisbon Treaty (the renamed EU Constitution) was clearly rejected in Ireland, last Thursday, by 53.4% to 46.6%. As the No side trailed in every opinion poll, until a poll last week, this is a major shock for the political and business establishment in Ireland.

The government, with its new Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen, most of the parliamentary opposition, including Labour, the bosses’ and farmers organisations, most of the leadership of the trade union movement, the churches, the media and every other part of the establishment, all combined and used their vast resources to call for a Yes vote. They are clearly stunned by the poll defeat.

This is also an important setback for the big business interests and the political elite who control the EU. "With all respect for the Irish vote, we cannot allow the huge majority of Europe to be duped by a minority of a minority of a minority", commented Axel Schafer, social democrat (SPD) leader on the Bundestag committee on EU affairs. Some commentators claim that Ireland, a country with less than 1% of the EU population, cannot be allowed to “hold up” the whole of Europe. But the reality is if the EU was democratic, the Lisbon Treaty would have been put to the vote in all EU countries, and on the basis of the No vote in Ireland and the previous No votes to the EU Constitution, it would be rejected by working class people in many countries. The real minority dominating the lives of Europe millions is the tiny ruling classes.

The Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland) was an important part of the No campaign. We combined our own independent activities with participation a the broader, loose campaign – the Campaign Against the EU Constitution (CAEUC), which involved thirteen other parties and groups and activists putting forward a progressive and left position. Sinn Fein, the only party with parliamentary representatives that opposed the Treaty, were prominent particularly in the media, but their central demand, that the Treaty could and should be renegotiated, was weak and, in part, perhaps a preparation for possibly supporting such treaties when they enter a future government.

Critical role of Joe Higgins

It is not an exaggeration to say that Socialist Party representative, Joe Higgins, played an absolutely critical role in the course of the campaign. Joe was the most capable representative of the No side; taking on and exposing the arguments of the senior political and business representatives of the Establishment. This is generally recognised. In yesterday’s Evening Herald newspaper, media analyst and consultant, Terry Prone, cited her ten reasons why Lisbon was defeated and she listed Joe Higgins as one of the ten. "They failed to realise the impact mavericks like Joe Higgins have. Joe Higgins is an institution. He is more than a curiosity. People who haven’t a left wing bone in their body identify with him because they find him straight and passionate and witty. If he said healthcare was going to be privatised, it rankled with them."

During the referendum campaign, the Yes side argued that Lisbon was mainly about ‘modernising’ the EU and changing the EU structures, so that a bigger EU could work more efficiently. They tried to diminish the important political, economic and military aspects contained in this long and practically unreadable Lisbon Treaty document.

While the Socialist Party dealt comprehensively with the militarism in the Treaty, we concentrated on how the Treaty facilitated the privatisation of vital public services, like health and education, and how the Treaty meant attacks on the wages, conditions and rights of workers.

The Treaty was purposely written, including protocols etc, to make it more difficult to pin down its neo-liberal and anti-working class content. It included a so-called Charter of Fundamental Rights, which added no new legal rights for workers but was used by the Labour and trade unions leaders as a justification for the campaign for a Yes vote.

Unlike the last Treaty, where the Establishment successfully said vote yes and played on the mantra “do not deny ten countries in eastern Europe the right to join the EU”, this time they could not manufacture strong arguments to frame their campaign around. The Yes vote campaigners wanted to avoid the actual details of the Lisbon Treaty and instead on the idea that Europe has been good for Ireland, which did not take account of the changing economic and social conditions working people in Ireland are experiencing.

Article 188c of the Treaty, by removing the ability of states to veto trade deals involving health and education, would open up the prospect that financial speculators, as a right, could intervene and cherrypick the most profitable aspects of health and education. These capitalist vultures would impose new charges and fundamentally undermining vital public services.

Lisbon continued with the policy of putting the right to trade and ‘do business’, in other word, putting the right to profit and exploit, at the centre of the EU, and above the rights of workers to decent pay and conditions. It further facilitated European Court of Justice to continue to make more vital rulings that favour big business over workers (e.g. the Laval and Ruffert judgements).

Privatisation and workers’ rights major points of contention

These issues of privatisation and workers’ rights were major points of contention throughout the campaign. The Socialist Party, through Joe Higgins’ interventions, helped to force these issues onto the agenda and also by our large posters on the issues, which were publicly seen in key cities. Two Socialist Party posters said: ‘No privatisation of health and education – No to Lisbon’ and ‘Defend workers wages and conditions – No to Lisbon’. In comparison to practically all the other posters, which had bland, meaningless slogans, ours made clear statements on the key issues and had a real impact. In a radio debate, Mary Harney, Minister of Health, bitterly complained that Joe Higgins and the Socialist Party had put up posters all over the country claiming that health was going to be privatised. An email sent to the Socialist Party from a female voter stated: "I have to say, I was really in 2 minds until I saw your poster. When I saw SF [Sinn Fein] were the only party advocating a NO vote, I was going to vote YES as I am not a SF fan but as a long time fan of yours, and all your opinions, your poster advocating a NO is what swayed my decision".

Day in and day out, the Yes side, including the leaders of Labour and the trade unions, bluntly accused the Socialist Party and the No side for “scaremongering” and they claimed that services and rights would actually be safeguarded by a Yes vote. In this context, it is very significant that the Treaty was explicitly rejected by the key sections of the working class.

During the campaign, the media facilitated the Yes side, by trying to undermine the arguments made against by the No campaign. For some people, it would have seemed the contest was reduced to a stalemate, with every claim being counter-claimed by the Yes and No campaigns. So an important question that emerged is do you trust what the political and business establishment is saying about the Treaty? Clearly, the instincts of key sections of the working class showed they did not trust the elites!

After 15 years of economic boom in Ireland, and the lack of a political alternative and mass struggles by working people, people’s mood and confidence and attitudes were affected. However, the rejection of Lisbon was a definite statement by the working class. It was openly accepted by commentators that the referendum poll result showed that the working class had turned out to vote more than in middle class and more affluent areas, where the Treaty was generally.

There were some reactionary elements on the No side, such as ‘Libertas’, a front set up by neo-liberal Irish billionaire, Declan Ganley. Coir was an umbrella that brought together fringe religious elements and anti-abortion reactionaries. These groups were given undue prominence, particularly in the last week of the campaign, in an attempt to frighten people to vote yes. However, the issues these campaigns highlighted, the threat of higher rates of corporate taxation and abortion etc, did not get significant resonance during the campaign.

Media and government try to distort No win

In the aftermath of the vote, the media and the government will try to distort the reasons why people voted no. But, as one woman said in an email to the Socialist Party: "I am furious at our political representatives. I felt they dismissed and belittled the No campaign and the intelligence of the Irish voter. You, however, very articulately expressed my own views on Europe, globalisation, privatisation and the erosion of democracy, concerns I know are shared by many. Using abortion and conscription to explain the no vote is just a scapegoat for the government to take them off the hook, and as they do, this affirms the fact that they are removed from the reality of life for the majority of Irish workers."

What happens now? This vote does not mean that The Lisbon Treaty is gone. The truth is probably that the EU establishment does not know exactly what to do but are intent on moving on. For them, preparing the EU for an intensification of competition with the US and China, and the scramble for markets, resources and influence, is vital. If, following this vote, the ratification of the Treaty continues by the respective governments, it is likely they will try to find the way to proceed. They will possibly try to pressurise Ireland to vote again or threaten the Irish that they will be “left behind”!

While some of the opposition parties who supported the Treaty have said they would oppose a re-run of the poll, and clearly a re-run would pose serious dangers for the political establishment in Ireland, the Dublin government has, quite consciously, not ruled out that option.

What is clear is that the best follow-up to this victory would be an active response by working people, seeing people get active in the workplaces, the communities, the schools and universities, to build an opposition to capitalist neo-liberal policies. The Socialist Party will do all in its power to help build such campaigns and movements. Crucially, the vote exposes the gulf between working people and the Establishment, including the leaders of Labour and the trade unions. This poses the vital need for the building of a new mass party for working people.

The Socialist Party ran a vibrant No campaign, which included media coverage, mass postering, distributed tens of thousands of leaflets, running street stalls in many city centres, door to door canvassing, and holding a host of public meetings and debates. Our campaign made a definite mark and further developed the national profile of Socialist Party.

The debates with leading figures from the Yes campaign that we organized in Cork, Limerick and Dublin, were the biggest public debates on the issue in those cities and had an important impact. The turnouts were 170, 100 and 200 people, respectively.

The Socialist Party is holding follow-up public meetings, next week, in several cities and we are confident that new people will join us because of the role the Socialist Party played in this important victory and because of our clear socialist alternative to neo-liberal capitalism.

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