Long love affair with Brussels comes to an end
Saturday 14 June 2008
Irish voters have delivered a stinging rebuff to official Europe and official Ireland by returning a decisive rejection of the Lisbon Treaty.
The vote – which had been expected to be close and in favour of Lisbon – instead brought a clear victory for the "no" side of 53.4 per cent to 46.6 per cent.
The shocked, pale faces of Ireland's grand old Europeans, in particular the former prime minister Garret FitzGerald, said it all: that the era of the country's long-unquestioning love affair with Europe is over.
The shock left the Irish authorities dazed as they began the task of trying to work out how to proceed on Europe generally, and on how to minimise an anti-Irish backlash in Brussels.
Voters all over the Republic rejected the urgings of the Irish establishment and of the Brussels bureaucracy to say no to Lisbon in a vote seen as illustrating in the most pointed way a striking disconnect between the electorate and the elite.
A generally tepid months-long campaign reached a more heated climax in the past week, culminating yesterday with the jostling of the cabinet minister Brian Lenihan by jubilant anti-abortion campaigners.
When the final result was confirmed, shortly after 5pm, the returning officer was interrupted by prolonged whooping and chanting from Lisbon opponents celebrating what all sides regard as an emphatic victory. The "no" camp amassed 862,000 votes while the "yes" camp collected 752,000, a quite unexpectedly decisive margin of victory which surprised politicians, commentators and – for once – even the bookmakers.
Issues such as abortion were not originally supposed to be important in the campaign, but as it developed a whole range of topics, many said by the "yes" camp to be extraneous, came to the fore.
Yesterday there was little agreement on what exactly had gone wrong for the "yes" camp, which included all the major parties, business groups, most of the trade unions and practically all the media. Early explanations ranged from a mounting disillusionment with the overall European project to a particularly forceful anti-Lisbon campaign mounted by a disparate range of opponents which included the far right and the far left.
This was reflected by the Irish Foreign Minister, Micheal Martin, who said: "We were on the back foot in this campaign, saying things like 'No, Lisbon will not impose abortion, will not mean the ending of Ireland's low corporate tax rate, will not mean conscription to a European army or the end of our military neutrality, or the end of vetoes in relation to farming'."
A number of politicians told of women voters saying they could not support the treaty because of a fear that their sons or grandsons might be conscripted into a future European army.
But in addition to these factors many observers detected an underlying distrust of Brussels and the major Irish parties.
The "no" campaign appeared to make an impact with arguments that Lisbon's highly technical provisions would bring about a loss of Irish influence.
A clear current of nervousness about a growing centralisation of power in Brussels was visible. At the same time, however, hardly anyone in the "no" campaign described themselves as anti-European, insisting they approved of Europe but not of Lisbon.
One of the minority of constituencies to record a "yes" vote was that of the recently appointed Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, in what was seen as a personal local endorsement. But he had campaigned hard in recent weeks and it will come as a blow to him to begin his premiership with such a defeat.
The result also reflected badly on the other large parties, which were also active in the "yes" camp, though it may provide a boost for Sinn Fein, which was in the "no" camp.
Early post-mortems yesterday focused on the "no" camp's early start in the campaign, which allowed it to set the agenda and succeeded in enmeshing the government and other pro-Lisbon elements in the politics of rebuttal.
Mr Martin conceded yesterday: "It's an old adage of politics – when you're explaining you're losing."
While much of the middle class tended to support Lisbon, most of the working class and much of rural Ireland showed themselves against, women were clearly more sceptical than men. But it was a sweeping victory across the Republic for the "no" camp, which registered a majority in 33 of the 43 political constituencies.
The political classes were taken aback both by the result and the scale of the victory, and no one yesterday had any clear idea of where the overall European odyssey might lead to next. On a previous occasion a rejected European proposition was reformulated and put again to the electorate. On that occasion the tactic worked, with a higher turnout and a more energetic "yes" campaign reversing the first result.
On this occasion, however, the scale of the victory would seem to rule out such an approach. The result will be seen as a personal triumph for the millionaire businessman Declan Ganley, whose organisation, Libertas, fought a well-organised and particularly well-funded campaign.
* For: 46.6 per cent, 752,451 votes
* Against: 53.4 per cent, 862,415
* Turnout: 53.1 per cent
*Just 10 out of the 43 constituencies – Clare; Dublin South; Dublin South East; Dublin North; Dublin North Central; Dun Laoghaire; Kildare North; Laois-Offaly; Carlow-Kilkenny; and Meath East – voted in favour
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