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Posted on 14 June 2008 at 0:00 GMT

Ireland poll rejects the Lisbon Treaty

In a higher than normal turnout for a referendum, 53.1%, the Lisbon Treaty (the renamed EU Constitution), was clearly rejected on Thursday by 53.4% to 46.6%. As the 'no' side trailed in every opinion poll until one poll last week, this is a major shock for the political and business establishment in Ireland.

Kevin Mcloughlin

The government, with its new Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen, the opposition, including Labour, the bosses' and farmers organisations, most of the leadership of the trade union movement, the churches, the media and every other part of the establishment, who all combined together and used their vast resources have been stunned by this defeat.

This is also an important setback for the big business interests and the political elite who control the EU. "With all respect for the Irish vote, we cannot allow the huge majority of Europe to be duped by a minority of a minority of a minority", so said Axel Schafer SPD leader in the Bundestag committee on EU affairs. While some are saying that a country with less than 1% of the EU population cannot be allowed to hold up the whole of Europe, the reality is if the EU was democratic, Lisbon would have been rejected by working class people in many countries.

The Socialist Party [the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) in Ireland, the sister party of the Socialist Party in England and Wales] was an important part of the no campaign. We combined our own independent activities with participation in the broader, loose campaign - the Campaign Against the EU Constitution (CAEUC), which involved thirteen other parties and groups and activists putting forward a progressive and left position. Sinn Fein who were the only party with parliamentary representatives that opposed the Treaty, were prominent particularly in the media, but their central demand that the Treaty could and should be renegotiated was weak and in part perhaps a preparation for possibly supporting such Treaties when they enter a future government.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Socialist Party representative, Joe Higgins, played an absolutely critical role in the course of the campaign in being the most capable representative of the 'no' side in taking on and exposing the arguments of the senior political and business representatives of the establishment. This is generally recognised. In the Evening Herald yesterday media analyst and consultant Terry Prone cited her 'ten reasons' why Lisbon was defeated, and one of them was Joe Higgins. "They failed to realise the impact mavericks like Joe Higgins have. Joe Higgins is an institution. He is more than a curiosity.

"People who haven't a left wing bone in their body identify with him because they find him straight and passionate and witty. If he said healthcare was going to be privatised, it rankled with them."

In the campaign, the 'yes' side argued that Lisbon was mainly about modernising the EU and changing the structures so the bigger EU could work more efficiently. They tried to diminish the important political, economic and military aspects contained in this long and practically unreadable document.

While the Socialist Party dealt comprehensively with the militarism in the Treaty, we concentrated on how the Treaty facilitated the privatisation of vital public services like health and education and attacks on the wages, conditions and rights of workers.

The Treaty was purposely written, including protocols etc, to make it more difficult to pin down its neo-liberal and anti-working class content. It included a so-called 'Charter of Fundamental Rights', which added no new legal rights for workers but was used by the Labour and trade unions leaders as a justification for the campaign for a 'yes' vote.

Unlike the last Treaty where they were able to say 'vote yes, don't deny the ten countries in eastern Europe the right to join the EU', this time they couldn't manufacture strong arguments to frame their campaign around. They wanted to avoid the actual detail of the Treaty and instead leaned on the idea that Europe has been good for Ireland, which didn't take account of the changing economic and social conditions people are experiencing.

Article 188c of the Treaty, by removing the ability of states to veto trade deals involving health and education, would open up the prospect that financial speculators as a right could intervene and cherrypick the most profitable aspects of health and education and thereby imposing new charges and fundamentally undermining vital public services.

Lisbon continued with the policy of putting the right to trade and do business, in other word the right to profit and exploit, at the centre of the EU and above the rights of workers to decent pay and conditions. It further facilitated European Court of Justice to continue to make more vital rulings that favour big business over workers like in the Laval and Ruffert judgements.

These issues of privatisation and workers' rights were major points of contention throughout the campaign. The Socialist Party really helped to push these issues on to the agenda through Joe Higgins' interventions and our large posters which were put up in key cities. We produced two posters which said "No privatisation of health and education - No to Lisbon" and "Defend workers wages and conditions - No to Lisbon". In comparison to practically all the other posters, which had bland meaningless slogans, ours made simple statements on issues and had a real impact.

In a radio debate, Mary Harney, Minister of Health, bitterly complained that Joe Higgins and the Socialist Party had put up posters all over the country saying health was going to be privatised. An email to the Socialist Party showed the impact that our posters had: "I have to say I was really in 2 minds until I saw your poster. When I saw SF [Sinn Fein] were the only party advocating a NO vote I was going to vote YES as I am not a SF fan but as a long time fan of yours and all your opinions your poster advocating a NO is what swayed my decision".

Day in and day out the 'yes' side, including the leaders of Labour and the trade unions, bluntly claimed that we and the 'no' side were scaremongering and that services and rights would actually be safeguarded. In this context it is very significant that the Treaty was explicitly rejected by the key sections of the working class.

In the campaign, the media facilitated the 'yes' side in trying to undermine the arguments against the Treaty. For some it would have seemed like a stalemate, with every claim being counter claimed. So an important question that emerged is 'do you trust what the political and business establishment is saying about this Treaty?' Clearly the instincts of key sections of the working class was that they didn't.

In Ireland, fifteen years of boom, the lack of a political alternative and struggle in society has affect not only peoples mood and confidence but also attitudes. However this rejection of Lisbon was a definite statement by the working class. It was openly accepted yesterday that the vote showed that the working class had turned out, and out-voted the more middle class and more affluent areas, who generally supported the Treaty.

There were some reactionary elements on the 'no' side. Libertas was a front set up by neo-liberal Irish billionaire Declan Ganley. Coir was an umbrella that brought together fringe elements of religious and anti-abortion reactionaries. These were being given undue prominence, particularly in the last week of the campaign in an attempt to frighten people towards voting 'yes'. However the issues they raised, the threat of higher rates of corporate taxation and abortion, etc. did not get a significant resonance during the campaign.

In the aftermath the media and the government will try to distort the reasons why people voted 'no'. But as one woman said to the Socialist Party in an email yesterday "I am furious at our political representatives. I felt they dismissed and belittled the 'no' campaign and the intelligence of the Irish voter. You however very articulately expressed my own views on Europe, globalisation, privatisation and the erosion of democracy, concerns I know are shared by many. Using abortion and conscription to explain the 'no' vote is just a scapegoat for the government to take themselves off the hook, and as they do, this affirms the fact that they are removed from the reality of life for the majority of Irish workers."

What happens now? This vote does not mean that The Lisbon Treaty is gone. The truth is probably that the EU establishment don't know exactly what to do but are intent on moving on. For them preparing the EU for an intensification of competition with the US and China and the scrabble for markets, resources and influence is vital. If following this vote the ratification of the Treaty continues by the respective governments, it is likely they will try to find the way to proceed and possibly use that to pressurise Ireland to vote again or be left behind!

While some of the opposition parties who supported the Treaty have said they would oppose a re-run, and clearly a re-run would pose serious dangers for the political establishment here, the government has quite consciously not ruled that out. We'll just have to see how things develop.

What is clear is that the best follow up to this victory would be an active response where people get active in the workplaces, the communities, the schools and universities in order to build an opposition to capitalist neo-liberal policies where they are being imposed. The Socialist Party will do all in its power to help build such campaigns and movements. Crucially the vote exposes the gulf between ordinary people and the establishment, including the leaders of Labour and the trade unions and poses the vital need for the building of a new mass party for working people.

The Socialist Party ran a very vibrant campaign which included intervening into the media, mass postering, distributed tens of thousands of leaflets, stalls in many city centres, door to door work and a host of public meetings and debates. Our campaign made a definite mark and further developed the national profile of the party.

The debates with leading figures from the 'yes' campaign that we were able to organise in Cork, Limerick and Dublin were the biggest public debates on the issue in those cities and had an important impact. The turnouts were 170, 200 and 100 people respectively.

The party is holding follow up public meetings next week in all the cities where we have a base and are confident that we will recruit new members to the party because of the role we have played in this important victory and our clear socialist alternative to neo-liberal capitalism.

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