Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Ireland’s “undemocratic” second Lisbon Treaty referendum

In last year’s Irish Lisbon Treaty referendum, turnout was 53.1%, with 53.4% voting No and 46.6% voting yes.

That’s 862,415 No voters – 28.3% of the Irish electorate, and just 0.17% of the EU’s population – holding up the ratification of a complex document that was the result of the best part of seven years’ worth of detailed negotiations between the governments of 27 states.

And yet, the opponents of the re-run referendum have been telling us for much of the last year, to ask the people of Ireland to vote again would be undemocratic.

Because, of course, allowing people *more* chances to express their views through the ballot box is precisely the opposite of democracy, right? And that’s before we even note that many of the people *opposing* a second referendum in Ireland have long been arguing that the UK’s 1975 referendum on EEC membership should have been re-run…

In other words, democracy is only democracy when you get the result you want. (The advocates of a No vote, on this point at least, are of entirely the same opinion as the pro-Lisbon EU elites who pushed the Irish government into asking its people to vote again.)

Although there are some good arguments to be made for voting No to Lisbon (it is, after all, a fairly shoddy compromise that no one’s really happy with), the debates in the run-up to last year’s referendum were characterised by seemingly deliberate propagation of lies and distortions by many on the No side.

Lisbon is easily the most confusing and impenetrable EU treaty ever tabled (and that’s saying something) – and the No campaigns understandably took full advantage of this fact. If you have any sense, you wouldn’t sign a legal document without having read and understood the small print – and yet that’s effectively what the Irish people were being asked to do (which is a large part of the reason why I still reckon that referenda on such complicated international treaties are a very silly idea).

But not satisfied with making just this sensible point, the No campaigns went a bit mental, pulling out a disparate series of outlandish claims – Lisbon will force strongly Catholic Ireland to introduce abortion clinics, to abandon its neutrality, to drop its minimum wage to just a euro eight-four an hour, etc. etc. etc.

Pretty much all of these claims were unfounded, stemming mostly from the vague nature of the treaty itself – it’s so very vague that in places it *could* be interpreted to be saying just about anything. Compromises – especially ones of international diplomacy – tend to be made in as vague language as possible to keep all parties happy, and to allow maximum leeway to those parties who are slightly less happy with the end result than others. Lisbon being in addition a legal compromise, the intention has always been that the details will be interpreted by the governments of the member states (and at last resort the judges) as and when disputes of interpretation crop up – just the same as pretty much any new law.

All of these unfounded No-camp claims also clouded the real issues at the heart of the treaty – important, significant issues that really did deserve to be looked at in detail by the Irish people before they cast their votes.

This time around, the No camp distortions having mostly been shown to be just that, debates have been rather more rational – instead of focussing on invented bogeymen (although some attempt has been made to resuscitate the same discredited claims as last time), much more discussion has centred around the key issue: is Lisbon good for Ireland; and would *not* ratifying the treaty have negative effects?

A far more sensible situation all round – even if the key issue of Lisbon’s impenetrability hasn’t been solved, and so most Irish voters were still little the wiser about what precisely it is they were voting for or against yesterday, at least the arguments have mostly been over things it *actually* contains rather than things that its opponents *claim* it contains.

Though results are as yet to be finalised – it looks as if turnout is down only a little, to around 50%.

And yet the extra year that the Irish people have been given to think about the implications of Lisbon – and to see that many of the claims of the No camp were unjustified – has seen a significant change in the Yes vote, with early indications suggesting c.60% voting in favour this time (according to the BBC).

Last time, based upon mostly false claims, the No camp managed to convince 862,000 Irish voters to back them.

This time – based on those vague initial results above – the Yes camp appears to have convinced around 915,000 to approve the treaty.

Democracy works based upon debate, discussion and deliberation of the issues, with the option with majority support after this process carrying the day. Democracy works by returning periodically to the people to allow them to re-think and to change their minds. For a healthy democracy, the more debate, discussion and deliberation the better – and the more chances for the people to change their minds, the better.

Last year, the genuine issues surrounding Lisbon were not really discussed in Ireland in the run-up to the referendum – only the distortions. The result was a No. This year, the debate has been based more in reality. The result is a Yes – and not only a yes, but a rather more convincing Yes than last year’s No.

So what now for the No-supporters’ claims that this whole process has been undemocratic? Are the people of Ireland wrong now, after being right last time? Were the No voters that secured the Treaty’s defeat last year – after a far shorter period to make up their minds – better-informed than the larger number of Yes voters this time, who had been given far more time to weigh up the pros and cons?

The people have spoken. Again. And they will speak again in the future, quite possibly changing their minds again and again and again and again. That’s how democracy works. You’re not happy with the result of a vote? Fine – make sure that next time your campaign is more convincing.

Short version? In any democratic society, politics is not a battle, it’s a war. Win some, lose some, but the fight always goes on.

(Of course, the Yes voters are still only 30% of the Irish electorate, and still only 0.18% of the EU’s population. They are still not a majority by any means. But they are, at least, a larger proportion than the No voters – in both referenda. That’s how democracy works. The majority? Well, it would seem that the majority of Irish voters simply don’t care one way or the other.)

8pm update: I was being too cautious. Final tally? 67% Yes on a turnout of 58% – turnout up, Yes vote more than two-thirds. Approximate calculations put that as about 1,180,000 Yes voters to just 584,000 Nos – last time it was 752,000 Yes, 862,000 No. That’s a pretty insane swing.