JM Thorn, Socialist Democracy (Ireland) analyses the defeat of the Irish Left in the second Lisbon Treaty referendum.

The Lisbon Treaty was passed on October 2nd, overturning its rejection by the Irish people in June 2008.

The margin of victory was emphatic – the ‘Yes’ vote winning by a majority of 67 percent of voters to 33 percent. Turnout was 58 percent, up from last year’s 53.1 per cent. A total of 1,214,268 people, or 38.8 per cent of the total electorate, voted Yes, while 594,606, or 19 per cent, of the electorate voted No. There was a yes vote in 41 out of 43 constituencies. Large ‘Yes’ majorities, over 80 percent, were recorded in Dublin and nearby Dun Laoghaire, while only rural Donegal voted ‘No’. There was a swing in favour of the treaty from last year, when it was rejected by 53 to 46 percent, of around 20 per cent. In all, there were almost half-a-million extra ‘Yes’ votes in this poll – a clear indication that the endorsement for the treaty was down to a change of opinion rather than a change in turnout.

So why was there such a dramatic turnaround in public opinion? One explanation lies in the efforts of the ‘Yes’ campaign this time round, when a whole array of organisations and individuals were mobilised to support the treaty. This coalition ranged from the European Commission, political parties, the media, business groups and individual companies, trade union officials, the hierarchies of the churches and various celebrities. It represented social partnership at its broadest and the determined effort of what could be described as “the establishment” to ensure a ‘Yes’ vote this time round. They simply came back with a better organised campaign and spent more money in pursuit of the result they want.

Reasons for defeat

Some in the ‘No’ camp have blamed the imbalance in the resources available to each side as the main reason for their defeat. But this is not really convincing. It has always been the case that pro-EU forces in Ireland have had these advantages. Indeed, it was the case in last year’s referendum in which the Treaty was rejected. What made the critical difference this time was not the better organisation or greater resources of the ‘Yes’ campaign but the changed circumstances in which the vote took place. Since the last referendum in June 2008 Ireland has suffered an unprecedented economic collapse. The economy has contracted by almost ten per cent, the banking system has failed, unemployment has doubled and public finances have deteriorated rapidly. What this crisis has done is to expose Ireland’s economic vulnerability and also its dependency on external forces, whether that is foreign capital or the EU.

There was therefore a ‘fear factor’ at work that the ‘Yes’ campaign played upon to win support for the Treaty. The argument was that Ireland needed the EU in order to revive its economy and shield it from the worst of the recession. This was the main thrust of the ‘Yes’ campaign, with slogans such as “Yes for Jobs” and “Yes for Recovery”. The fear, or the threat, behind such claims was that rejection of the Treaty would leave Ireland isolated, ruined and on the margins of Europe.

This argument is a false one. Indeed, it could be argued that the policies of the EU, particularly on the euro and low interests rates, were in part responsible for Ireland’s economic crash. It could also be argued that the EU is in part driving the cuts agenda with its budget deficit rules for euro members. The EU is also playing a key role in the bail out of the banks. These are counters to the idea that the Irish people are being saved by the EU. But they weren’t made by the ‘No’ campaign.

The clear message of the ‘Yes’ campaign contrasted to the disparate and conflicting messages coming from the ‘No’ side. This in part is a result of the hodgepodge of political groups that made up the ‘No’ campaign. These ranged from the Catholic right, in the form of Cóir, to the left in the form of the Socialist Party and SWP. A much weaker element of the ‘No’ side this time was the neo-liberal strand represented the Declan Ganley’s Libertas. It had been weakened by the general retreat of neo-liberalism in the face of the economic crisis and the adoption of interventionist policies by Governments across the EU. Indeed, its involvement this time helped the ‘Yes’ side play up the supposedly progressive side of the EU – contrasting the harshness of the extreme liberal position with the more statist approach of the EU.

Given the weakness of Libertas this time round, the strongest element on the ‘No’ side was the left. There was a good opportunity to run a ‘No’ campaign that was explicitly socialist and orientated towards the working class. Unfortunately that opportunity was spurned. The SWP and Socialist Party ran campaigns which opposed various pro-market aspects of Lisbon, as well as steps towards greater militarism, but articulated no fundamental opposition to the EU as a capitalist institution and offered no political alternative other than to echo aspects of the rhetoric of the nationalist right.

Concession towards nationalism

The tilt towards nationalism was expressed most clearly by the Communist Party with its declaration that a ‘No’ vote was the work of “true patriots”. The concession towards nationalism was also reflected by the inclusion of Sinn Fein in the broad left campaign despite that party’s ambiguous position on the EU. In the second referendum Sinn Fein merely called for a “better deal” for Ireland. Ironically, it was left to Cóir to raise any issues that related to the working class. One of the most effective posters in the campaign was the one they produced on the minimum wage.

The only organization to offer any left political message was the Socialist Party, and that fell far short of what was promised. On election to the European parliament Joe Higgins had promised to build a socialist campaign. In reality he followed the sectarian history of his organization, joining the distinctly un-socialist broad campaign and presenting his own organization as the socialist campaign.

Any hopes that the left would learn anything from the debacle were dispelled when Kieran Allen of the Socialist Workers Party appeared on a special edition of the Vincent Browne show on RTE (Irish state television channel). The vote had been lost because the corporate establishment had united. There was establishment press bias, undemocratic intervention by Ryanair and IBEC who provoked a scare about jobs and brought in the issue of Europe in general instead of sticking to the details of the treaty. The main issue to arise from the campaign was the need for a party to represent the 30% who had voted ‘No’.

So we lost because the bosses united against us. In that case socialism is doomed – when will the conditions arise when they don’t unite against us? The bosses made a political case around jobs and the economy – a killer blow when our strategy was to avoid politics!

Allen’s final comment gives the game away -that we need a party to represent the 30% who said ‘No’. There is no doubt that we desperately need a working class party in Ireland. There is no doubt but that the nucleus of that party is to be found in the people who said ‘No’. The task of Socialists is to separate out those who voted for their class from the ex-republicans and Catholic right-wingers also in that vote. As long as Kieran Allen and other leftists pursue the apolitical opportunist and electoralist numbers game they will be an obstacle to a new party of the working class rather than facilitators of it.

The ‘Yes’ vote on Lisbon will give a boost to the government as it presses ahead with another cost cutting budget and the establishment of the National Assets Management Agency. The same arguments that were made so effectively for Lisbon can be made for these. However, that will be more difficult, as unlike Lisbon there are disputes between the political parties and within the capitalist class on how to proceed. These divisions at the top of society provide an opportunity for a working class opposition to emerge. Indeed, despite the disappointment of the Lisbon vote, it did reveal the existence of a solid core of the populace, who despite threats and coercion rejected the will of the political establishment by voting ‘No’. It is also the case that this ‘No’ vote was largely concentrated in the working class and the most marginalised sections of society. The ‘No’ vote was a class vote; the problem was that it was not a class-conscious vote.

This summarises the problem faced by the Irish working class – that it doesn’t have its own independent programme. It isn’t helped by groups proclaiming themselves socialist failing to advance one, but instead adapting to reactionary ideas. This was the story of the Lisbon campaign. While putting forward an explicitly socialist programme would not have produced a bigger ‘No’ vote, it would have been a better vote and would have better prepared a section of the working class for the struggles that are to come.