It has been a while since I spoke about the Fiscal Compact referendum. The reason for this is largely how unenthusiastic I have become about the whole process, a point I may expand upon fully at a later date. Suffice to say, I find myself conflicted on how to vote more than on any other referendum so far in my political watching life, but in combination with my dissatisfaction with the campaign being fought – by both sides – this has produced apathy rather than interest. For now, I’d like to just comment on a few things regards the Compact.
Firstly, I’m not calling it the “Stability Treaty” and I’m not calling it the “Austerity Treaty”. Such terms are loaded to the hilt and do a disservice to the debate. I have more criticism for the government here, who use the word “Stability” with all of its positive connotations, in the supposedly neutral referendum literature.
A while back I said that the primary emotions both sides would be trying to pander to/invoke would be fear, anger and confusion. This has, predictably, come to pass. There has been plenty of fear mongering from both sides, talk of perpetual austerity, talk of financial collapse. It has been the defining emotional tactic. Anger, as expected, has been the tool of the “No” side, who have been trying to draw a clear line between unpopular government policies and this referendum. Confusion, naturally, reigns with many, over whether Ireland can get funding from somewhere in the event of a “No” vote, over the extent of austerity in the event of both choices, over whether all this, in the face of democratic will in the rest of Europe, is a waste of time.
It has been very negative. The “Yes” side is not selling the treaty in positive terms for the most part, opting for the scare instead, talking non-stop about the possible negative outcomes of a “No” vote to as much a degree as possible. That seems to be the core thing that the “Yes” side does, paint the doomsday scenario that happens if Ireland has the temerity to disagree with the EU. The “No” side are just as bad, acting as if a “Yes” vote will put us back into the stone age for the foreseeable future. The political parties of the “No” side have been painfully thin on viable alternatives to the issue of funding, which damages their specific argument immensely, and means that they too have had a hard time selling their position in a positive way. At times they seem to be opposing for the sake of opposing. The debate is just so negative, so disheartening, as to kill enthusiasm for it. Vote Yes, vote No, the message from both sides would seem to indicate total disaster in either event. It has been a campaign of attacking the other side, not emphasising the positives of your own.
During the Presidential campaign I talked about the limits of negative strategy, how smear and attack towards another candidate could get people to not vote for him/her, but would not result in many extra voters going back to the attacker. Gay Mitchell and Martin McGuiness found that out.
But that is a multicandidate poll. Here, when you attack the other side and convince someone not to vote for them, there is only one other option. That might be the thinking anyway.
Because secret option #3 is not voting at all. I suspect turnout might be disappointingly low for this referendum, as I doubt I am the only one as disillusioned with the topic. A low turnout will probably favour the “No” side, as it did in previous referendums, so it is up to the “Yes” side to commence some positive messages. They would do well to ditch any designs to talk about voting “Yes” for jobs, which rings hollow after Nice and Lisbon.
The left of Irish politics has become the “No” side, Sinn Fein and the ULA. This indicates a divide over the treaty along strictly political lines, but as defectors in the bigger parties have shown, this isn’t really true. There are plenty of conservatives and right-wingers who will vote “No”. They will probably do so for different reasons to Sinn Fein and the ULA, but their inclusion in the “No” side should have greater acknowledgement.
Many of those may vote “No” and accept the possibility of harsher austerity measures once certain avenues of funding are cut off. Essentially, promoting the acceptation of greater pain over the short term, rather than a longer, slightly easier, time in the doghouse. This is an answer to a popular “Yes” talking point, that is “Where will the funding come from?” usually spat at the “No” side with a degree of contempt. The answer, from the likes of Sinn Fein, is other institutions like the IMF, or taking money from the Pension reserve, but they are not great options are they? (And that pension fund seems to be limitless if you believe Sinn Fein).
Perhaps the answer should be “Nowhere”. Maybe we should just cut more harshly then we have already. Ireland will get a second bailout if required, but the terms will be harsher due to the lack of possible sources in the event of a “No” vote (well, one source, the ESM). The “Yes” side accuses the “No” side of playing a suicidal economic game. I think the “Yes” side could be accused of advocating a comatose economic plan, where we limp on in our present state, dependent on elsewhere. Neither option is good.
Fine Gael previously insisted, rather loudly, that a second bailout was unforeseeable and Ireland would return to the markets soon enough. Now that they need popular support to continue their economic plans, they can’t stop talking about “safety” and “just in case” scenarios. It’s irritating. If we’re going to need a second bailout, just say so, and maybe you’ll get some votes.
There is also a certain topic that the “Yes” side comes out with, members of it anyway, that the people should “hold their fire” on criticising the government through a “No” vote because now is not the time to do so. Put on the green jersey and all that. I don’t like this argument. This government had a part in the Fiscal Compact negotiations and it goes hand in hand with their own economic policies, those that have been undertaken, and those that are planned. If you are unhappy with what the government has done, you are naturally going to be somewhat unlikely to vote “Yes” to a treaty that is a part of those policies, that implements a legally binding measure regards “balanced budgets” and has been marked by increasingly obvious suggestions that the nation will need a second bailout. Using a vote as protest is always an option and should not be so easily dismissed. If you’re unhappy with this government, you will rarely get the chance to express that unhappiness in such a direct way, one of the reasons I adore Ireland’s constitutional workings.
Oh, and then there is O’Cuiv and Fianna Fail, desperate to seem like the party doing all the work. They really need a win, and if a “Yes” vote is the result, you can bet your bottom dollar that they will claim to have been the driving force behind it. In the midst of all that though, Eamon O’Cuiv renounces the treaty, then just as some are commenting on what a brave move that is, he decides he won’t stick to his guns that extra bit. Now staying silent on the matter, O’Cuiv has clearly demonstrated his desire to remain in Fianna Fail, probably because he wants to be the next leader of the party. Maybe a “No” vote will push that event forward. Regardless, it’s a damaging move for Fianna Fail in terms of popular perception, fighting amongst themselves, taking conscientious stands then not committing to them.
The elections and political instability elsewhere in Europe – Greece, France, Netherlands, Spain, Britain, Italy, Germany soon enough – demonstrate a simple fact that the government parties in Ireland should remember, Aside from causing confusion regards the legs that this treaty could have, given that Europe seems content to elect people who don’t like it at all, it shows something very important: electorates do not like austerity. They do not like the threat of austerity.
And they will never, ever forgive you.
No matter how necessary it is, no matter how much your hands are tied, no matter how good your intentions were, they will not understand. They will not be patient, they will not be merciful. They will vote for someone else in droves and if they can’t do any better they’ll vote for someone else, as far out on the fringe as is possible if it comes to it.
Franc elects a socialist, the local scene in Britain and Italy swings towards the opposition, the Dutch government collapses, Neo-Nazi’s and Communists are big players in the Greek Parliament today. Look at what’s happening in Europe. Austerity is the cause. People don’t like it, electorates hate it.
It might be necessary, perhaps, but the electorate will still rake you over the coals for it. That is something that Fine Gael and Labour must be ready for. It might be as simple as a “No” vote now, but it is a sign of worse things to come. Sinn Fein might lose this referendum, but the way things are going, they will be in government in the not-too-distant future.