So the referendum is done and “Yes” is the call of the Irish electorate. A few things to cover in this round-up of the final week and aftermath.
It was a very low turnout, which was predictable for several reasons. One of the main things, elaborated on by Joan Burton over the weekend, is simple burnout with referendums, from European Treaties to constitutional reform. People are tired of going to the polls to vote on Europe issues, especially when nothing seems to change as a result (or things get worse). If we are required to go back to the polls over the Fiscal Compact (a not unfeasible possibility), expect the turnout to be even lower. This is also depressing news for any future referenda that the coalition has planned, even If something like Children Rights should be far easier to pass. Some people have only so much energy and attention to give to political issues of the day.
There was also the standard reasons for low turnout, which was lethargy over the topic, the fault of which can be traced to the negative and circular debate that took place over it. The campaigns were awful in getting people involved and interested, and even the scaremongering didn’t do the trick as it did for both sides in past votes. Half of Ireland’s electorate could not be bothered to declare a position on the Fiscal Compact. That is very telling.
Basic things like the weather and the decision to hold the vote on a Thursday (when many people might be away from constituencies during weekdays) also had their effect. When you’re on the fence about voting at all, piddling rain can easily make up your mind. The half-hearted efforts to get people to vote, undertaken for the most part on the day itself, were not enough. You could just feel it, the malaise that was evident. Only part of the Irish electorate truly cared about the Fiscal Compact, and they made up their minds a while ago. The rest were too confused, too lethargic, too nonplussed to get involved.
In the end, in a turn from the usual course of events, the low turnout benefitted the Yes side, with the “Don’t Know’s” and their sizable amount of voters staying home and not getting involved. The “Yes” can be thankful that the “confusion” part of the whole thing, which usually manifests itself in “No” votes, did not turn up. This allowed the “Yes” vote to claim a substantial victory, albeit one that is only representative of half the country’s voters.
And it didn’t take long for the bad news to start seeping out, as you might expect it to, with Irish Rail announcing further cuts to be made soon . There is no defending the decision to keep further blows to the Irish workforce private until after the referendum vote had been taken, other than purely Machiavellian ones. The Fiscal Compact is tied to Ireland’s economic policy, so such things regards future cuts, taxes and charges, should be made known in order for the electorate to make an informed choice. But, this is politics, and getting a “Yes” was all that was required. When Leo Varadker says the news wasn’t buried until after the referendum purposefully, we all know he isn’t telling the truth.
Oh, and then there is the Referendum Commission which is biased in the extreme. It always tends to side just a little bit to the governments point of view, but it was especially notable this time around.
Just looking at what the referendum was called is proof enough. The full official title of the treaty was “Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union” known primarily as the “European Fiscal Union” or the “Fiscal Stability Treaty”.
The Commission decided to just call it the “Stability Treaty”.
The “Fiscal Compact”, wording that neutrals like myself tended towards using, is a far more accurate and unbiased term to describe what the country voted on, but the Commission went with just “stability”. “Stability” inherently comes with positive connotations, because stability is a good thing, right?
It didn’t stop there. Aside from an astonishing misrepresentation of the Treaty in one of the campaign ads, the leaflets that were sent out in the Commissions names also had examples of it. Some quotes:
“The Stability Treaty, agreed by EU leaders along with a strategy for growth…”
A strategy for growth that was not part of the text being voted on, so arguably irrelevant to this leaflet. Shoehorning in this reference is not a good sign. The message being put out: Vote Yes.
“…is about stabilizing the euro currency.”
All well and good, just about, if it had ended there. But then the leaflet adds:
“Job-creators need currency stability to do their business, invest and create jobs.”
While that might be an accurate statement on its own, it is written and placed in such a way as to indicate that the Fiscal Compact is the only way to achieve it. The Compact is about currency stability. Businesses need currency stability. The message being put out: Vote Yes.
“Ratifying the Stability Treaty would mean that Ireland, if ever needed, would have access to this funding (the ESM) to help pay for public services and job-creation initiatives.”
There is no condition that ESM funds would be used for such things, yet the Commission frames it as if this is going to be the case. Like public services, job creation? The message being put out: Vote Yes.
“This…would reassure others who wish to invest in Ireland.”
This is not something the Commission can or should be commenting on with this degree of certainty. Again, an overly positive tone about the Treaty’s effects. The message being put out: Vote Yes.
“Good Housekeeping With Budgets”
The Commission should not be using such terms and words like “good” in regards to Treaty articles. The message being put out: Vote Yes.
“It (the Treaty) will require…(that) we manage our budget responsibly.”
“Stability”, “good housekeeping”, “responsible” “growth”, “job-creation”. Positive terms and positive connotations towards the Treaty are everywhere in the text. The message being put out: Vote Yes.
This is not acceptable behaviour from what should be a neutral body. Former campaigns from such groups were handled with far greater tact and nuance, but not this time. The Referendum Commission for the Fiscal Compact (I refuse to call it the “Stability” Treaty, anymore then the “Austerity Treaty”) was biased, pure and simple.
What is the message to Europe? I suppose that Ireland is onside, majority wise, with the EU’s plans for dealing with the financial crisis. Some, many even, might be unhappy with that interpretation, but we cannot afford to place too much emphasis on the minority when it comes to the democratic will of the people. The decision was put, Yea or Nay, and there was plenty of time for argument. The choice was made, and decrying that choice as uniformed (or in harsher language) is not fair. People can vote anyway they goddamn please and do not deserve to be abused for exercising that privilege just because they did not vote “Yes” or “No” as the case may be.
Ireland has agreed to the terms of the Fiscal Compact. Beyond everything else, this is the state of affairs in Ireland now and belabouring that point is, well, pointless. The message to Europe is: “continue”. Patriotism has nothing to do with it, either way. Love for the European “project” is little to do with it. This was a Treaty about getting access to the ESM, about enshrining deficit rules into law. Those were the primary issues, and Ireland said “Yes” to both. This is not up for debate. Those who did not choose to exercise the right to vote cannot be counted.
What is the future then? Well, very little change if we’re all honest with ourselves. The EU may agree a more concrete growth strategy, and may alter the Compact to enable the same. If we are forced to go to the polls again, it will probably only to accept these terms, and selling growth options to the Irish public will not be so difficult for the FG/Lab/FF triumvirate.
However, between elections in Greece, crisis in Spain, the new socialist direction of France, the likely regime change in Germany to come, things may not be that simple. I still hold to the belief that the Compact’s deficit rules will not be followed strictly and will not be enforced when it comes right down to it. I believe we will need access to the ESM, which is depressing but realistic. That is the Compact’s true saving grace, and when it falls apart through a haze of non-compliance, democratic choices and the realities of financial meltdown across parts of Europe, I will not shed many tears. The ESM is important for Ireland, the rest is just a paper tiger, waiting to be torn asunder.
Coming up next, a party-by-party analysis when it comes to the referendum.