Why Lisbon Lost

It was a real cliffhanger. As the political journos would say, it was “too close to call.” Right up until the time I stood in the polling booth and picked up the pencil, I was only ninety-five percent certain that I was voting Yes. A voice kept saying “come on, you know it’s wrong, vote No.”

In the end I resisted, and voted Yes. But I am not surprised, and not especially dismayed, at the result. It was pretty well inevitable that the worst-run campaign of all time was going to end in humiliation. These are some of the things that went wrong.

The Dick Factor

During the last General Election the story was that Dick Roche and Martin Cullen were kept out of the spotlight, since both were regarded with as figures of fun by the media and by the public, and neither could be trusted not to suddenly say something really stupid.

When Bertie Ahern was returned to power he took the Environment ministry away from Roche to give to the Greens, but let him stay as a junior Minister for Europe. There were a couple of reasons for this – one, he was so loyal to Ahern that Bertie hadn’t the heart to drop him altogether and two, he does actually know an awful lot about Europe and the Lisbon Treaty.

The problem with this was that when the No side started impacting upon the public viewpoint with their neutrality/tax/abortion sound bites, the ideal person to counter these would have been the person who knew more about the treaty than anyone else in the three Yes parties. But because this person was Dick Roche they were afraid to send him out to bat, so had to use instead a collection of badly-briefed, ill-informed other TDs who repeatedly were made to look shifty by the No side with the uncertainty of their answers.


The campaign started badly. The Yes parties voiced the hope that there would would be a more reasoned debate than there was before Nice, and Bertie Ahern promptly dismissed opponents of the Lisbon Treaty as “loo-lahs and loonies.” Coming from a man who at the same time was appearing in front of a tribunal, talking total rubbish about winning money on horses to explain the vast amounts of money that he kept everywhere  except in a bank where it might be safe, this was a bit hard to stomach.

The Panto reply

Unlike in a panto, it was not enough to shout “oh no it isn’t” everytime the no side said would have such an such an outcome. We kept being told they were lies, but no-one told us specifically why.

Remember the money

One of the more unfair arguments used by the Yes side was to continually remind us how well we had done out of the EU. This was an outrageous slur on people who had genuine doubts about this particular treaty, and about whether transferring more power from the (elected) European Parliament to the (unelected) European Commission was a good idea. The ‘remember the money’ argument implied that all No voters were Anti-Europeans who believed that, having sucked Europe dry, we should now leave before we have to give money to other poorer countries.

Churchill once said that saying “my country, right or wrong” is like saying “my mother, drunk or sober.” The money argument is the same. Followed to its logical conclusion it means that the Irish can never again oppose anything brought in by the EU , simply because we got money in the past. If the EU declares war on New Zealand tomorrow to stop it exporting lamb to the UK, then we in Ireland would have to back it, because remember, we’ve done very well out of Europe.

The French Connection

Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, once a poll appeared suggesting for the first time that the No side might win, a whole load of people opened their big mouths and inserted their equally big feet. The Irish Times of the Saturday before the vote was scathing in its fury that we might vote no. “Are we out of our minds?” shrieked its Editorial. “It would clearly be very foolish to infuriate gratuitously the politicians of 26 states,” preached Garret FitzGerald (gratuitously? who are you to decide that?) “The voters too need to ask themselves about their inability or unwillingness to inform themselves about such a serious political issue,” sniffed Stephen Collins. Jesus, Stephen, people were begging the Yes side to give them some solid information.

And then, fittingly from a lingustic viewpoint, it was the French who supplied the coup de grace. Dr Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, said a no vote would represent a lack of gratitude to Europe. “It would be very, troubling . . . that we will not be able to count on the Irish who counted a lot on Europe’s money.” He went on to state that Ireland would suffer consequences by voting No.

From the moment that appeared on RTE’s news website on Tuesday, I knew the Yes side had lost. For this buffoon to come out and threaten the Irish people, just two years after his own country had rejected what was essentially the same treaty with no consequences, was something the Irish would never put up with. There was now no chance that any wavering No voter could be brought around to the Yes side.

If you don’t know, don’t vote

Not an argument used by all of the Yes side, but still used enough to rankle. Realising that voters wh weren’t sure were opting for the No side to keep things as they are, some panicky Yes voters instead urged them not to vote at all. This was an attack on democracy. People should never be encouraged not to vote.

No, we don’t trust you

The astonishment of the Yes side at their defeat was based on a complete failure to grasp just how unpopular politicians really are. Eighty percent of the electorate voted for our three parties in the election just one year ago, they reasoned, so eighty percent of the electorate respect and trust us, they reasoned.

Wrong. We voted for you as the best of a bad lot, but we have nothing but contempt for most of you. Haughey, Ahern, Lowry, Burke, Lawlor and numerous Flynns have killed our trust. The drink-drivers, tax-defaulters, smoking-ban defiers have killed our respect. The unmerited (and deferred, not forsaken) payrise, the extended holidays, the St Patricks Day exodus, have all painted a picture of self-serving, money-grabbing incompetents who can’t manage our health service, daren’t challenge Ahern about his obvious Tribunal lying, and aren’t professional enough to do their homework about a treaty that they claim to want to see implemented. You pointed to Sinn Fein on the No side, hopeful that the obvious dislike for them shown in the last election would dissuade us from taking their side, but never realised that our dislike of you is strong enough to make that not a deciding factor. It’s a lesson you’d better start learning soon, or the people you think are unelectable will start to make real inroads.

The boy who cried wolf

We were told that this was it, there would be no second chance, and if we voted No there was a real chance Europe would go ahead with the treaty without us. Unfortunately we were told this in 2001, before the first Nice referendum, and after we rejected it all that happened was that we were made sit on the naughty step for a few months, and then told to go back and do it properly this time. Is it any wonder that none of us, including those of us on the Yes side, believe that there won’t be a second vote at some stage? That after seven years of negotiations, the EU will just abandon all their work just because of one no vote? Does anyone believe that the citizens of the Netherlands and the UK, who all wanted their own referendum, will agree to having Ireland thrown out because we were given one and didn’t produce the desired result?

There will be another vote. And this time, if the Yes parties treat us sensibly instead of contemptously, pick three or four simply explainable good things about the treaty and keep hammering home that message, and learn enough about what’s going on to counter the No accusations, then it should be passed.

One last thing. After every crisis in every vote in every country the EU comes out with a load of guff about making itself more accountable and transparent to the citizens, and then retreats back into its Castle. One day it had better get serious about doing that, or counties will eventually start to leave.

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