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Lisbon Treaty

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From: The Socialist issue 538, 17 June 2008: No! to racism: Yes! to decent jobs, homes & public services

Search site for keywords: Lisbon Treaty - Socialist Party - EU - Ireland - Joe Higgins

Lisbon Treaty 'No' vote delivers major shock for political and big business Establishment

Privatisation and workers' rights key issues of debate in referendum campaign

Socialist Party campaigns for a No vote in the referendum of the Lisbon Treaty, photo Paul Mattsson

Socialist Party campaigns for a No vote in the referendum of the Lisbon Treaty, photo Paul Mattsson

IN A higher than normal turnout for a referendum, 53.1%, the Lisbon Treaty (the renamed EU Constitution) was clearly rejected in Ireland on Thursday 12 June, by 53.4% to 46.6%. As the No side trailed in every opinion poll, until shortly before the referendum, this is a major shock for the political and business Establishment in Ireland.

Kevin McLoughlin, Socialist Party (CWI Ireland), Dublin

The government, with its new Taoiseach (prime minister) Brian Cowen, most of the parliamentary 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, all combined and used their vast resources to call for a Yes vote. They are clearly stunned by the poll defeat.

This is also an important setback for the big business interests and the political elite who control the EU.

Some commentators claim that Ireland, a country with less than 1% of the EU population, cannot be allowed to "hold up" the whole of Europe. But the reality is if the EU was democratic, the Lisbon Treaty would have been put to the vote in all EU countries, and on the basis of the No vote in Ireland and the previous No votes in the Netherlands and France to the EU Constitution, it would be rejected by working-class people in many countries. The real minority dominating the lives of Europe's millions is the tiny ruling classes.

The Socialist Party (CWI, Ireland) 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 13 other parties and groups and activists putting forward a progressive and left position.

Sinn Fein, 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.

Role of Joe Higgins

Socialist Party campaigns for a No vote in the referendum of the Lisbon Treaty, photo Paul Mattsson

Socialist Party campaigns for a No vote in the referendum of the Lisbon Treaty, photo Paul Mattsson

It is not an exaggeration to say that Socialist Party representative, Joe Higgins, played an absolutely critical role in the course of the campaign. Joe was the most capable representative of the No side; taking on and exposing the arguments of the senior political and business representatives of the Establishment.

This is generally recognised. In the Evening Herald newspaper, media analyst and consultant, Terry Prone, cited her ten reasons why Lisbon was defeated and she listed Joe Higgins as one of the ten. "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."

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

Socialist Party campaigns for a No vote in the referendum of the Lisbon Treaty, photo Paul Mattsson

Socialist Party campaigns for a No vote in the referendum of the Lisbon Treaty, photo Paul Mattsson

The Socialist Party dealt comprehensively with the militarism in the Treaty. We also concentrated on how the Treaty facilitated the privatisation of vital public services, like health and education, and how it meant 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 some trade union leaders as a justification for the campaign for a Yes vote.


The Yes vote campaigners wanted to avoid the actual details of the Lisbon Treaty and instead concentrated on the idea that Europe has been good for Ireland, which did not take account of the changing economic and social conditions working people in Ireland 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 cherry pick the most profitable aspects of health and education. These capitalist vultures would impose new charges, fundamentally undermining vital public services.

Lisbon continued with the policy of promoting the right to trade and 'do business'. In other words, putting 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 the European Court of Justice to continue to make more vital rulings that favour big business over workers.

These issues of privatisation and workers' rights were major points of contention throughout the campaign. The Socialist Party, through Joe Higgins' interventions, helped to force these issues onto the agenda and also by our large posters on the issues, which were publicly seen in key cities.

Two Socialist Party posters which said: 'No privatisation of health and education - No to Lisbon' and 'Defend workers' wages and conditions - No to Lisbon', 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 claiming that health was going to be privatised.

An email sent to the Socialist Party from a female voter stated: "I have to say, I was really in two 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."

Socialist Party campaigns for a No vote in the referendum of the Lisbon Treaty, photo Paul Mattsson

Socialist Party campaigns for a No vote in the referendum of the Lisbon Treaty, photo Paul Mattsson

Day in and day out, the Yes side, including the leaders of Labour and the trade unions, bluntly accused the Socialist Party and the No side of "scaremongering" and they claimed that services and rights would actually be safeguarded by a Yes vote. In this context, it is very significant that the Treaty was explicitly rejected by the key sections of the working class.

There were some reactionary elements on the No side, such as 'Libertas', a front set up by neo-liberal Irish billionaire, Declan Ganley.

'Coir' was an umbrella that brought together fringe religious elements and anti-abortion reactionaries. These groups were given undue prominence, particularly in the last week of the campaign, in an attempt to frighten people to vote Yes. However, the issues these campaigns highlighted, the threat of higher rates of corporate taxation and abortion etc, did not get significant resonance during the campaign.

The aftermath

In the aftermath of the vote, the media and the government will try to distort the reasons why people voted No. But, as one woman said in an email to the Socialist Party:

"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 them 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."

Campaign for a No vote in the referendum of the Lisbon Treaty, photo Paul Mattsson

Campaign for a No vote in the referendum of the Lisbon Treaty, photo Paul Mattsson

This vote, however, does not mean that the Lisbon Treaty is gone. The truth is probably that the EU establishment does not 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 scramble 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 a way to proceed. They will possibly try to pressurise Ireland to vote again or threaten the Irish that they will be "left behind"!

While some of the opposition parties who supported the Treaty have said they would oppose a re-run of the poll, and clearly a re-run would pose serious dangers for the political establishment in Ireland, the Dublin government has, quite consciously, not ruled out that option.

What is clear is that the best follow-up to this victory would be an active response by working people, seeing people get active in the workplaces, the communities, the schools and universities, to build an opposition to capitalist neo-liberal policies. The Socialist Party will do all in its power to help build such campaigns and movements.

Crucially, the vote exposes the gulf between working people and the Establishment, including the leaders of Labour and the trade unions. This poses the vital need for the building of a new mass party for working people.

Our campaign made a definite mark and further developed the national profile of the Socialist Party. The debates with leading figures from the Yes campaign that we organised 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, 100 and 200 people, respectively.

The Socialist Party is holding follow-up public meetings in several cities and we are confident that new people will join us because of the role the Socialist Party played in this important victory and because of our clear socialist alternative to neo-liberal capitalism.

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