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In the end it was easy. Before the October 19th referendum on the EU’s Nice treaty, much of Ireland’s political establishment was in a panic–unsure if it could trust the opinion polls (which got it wrong in the first vote last year), resentful that it had to trust the electorate with its prized status on […]

Ireland’s Dreary Yes to Nice

by HARRY BROWNE

In the end it was easy. Before the October 19th referendum on the EU’s Nice treaty, much of Ireland’s political establishment was in a panic–unsure if it could trust the opinion polls (which got it wrong in the first vote last year), resentful that it had to trust the electorate with its prized status on the European stage. The pleasures of subsidized dinner-parties in Brussels and Strasbourg might never be the same. Now, however, after a whopping 63-37 vote in favour of amending the Irish Constitution to accept the treaty–and, crucially as it turned out, to prohibit Irish involvement in an EU common-defense arrangement–the Irish are, once more, the “model Europeans”. Ireland’s political leaders can look Romano Prodi in the eye and say, “Hey, sure, our people were sceptical about the direction of this Euro-project–isn’t everyone?–but we sorted them out, and gave Europe a democratic shot in the arm while we were at it.”

Europe needs it. After a campaign in which we were told repeatedly that our No vote in June 2001 was the only thing standing between the poor, suffering, formerly benighted people of eastern Europe and their destiny as EU equals, we woke up this week to learn that, well, the process of negotiating enlargement could be protracted and difficult. And, really, a lot of west-European politicians would have been happy enough to have Ireland to blame for conveniently delaying the necessary deal-making. For politicians and media pros, the benefits of membership of the EU club are perfectly obvious, offering expanded professional opportunities, junkets and assorted freebies. With their help, and with short memories, most of the Irish people are also true believers. Thus it was ultimately made to seem churlish to deprive the wannabes of their chance to shine like the Emerald Isle.

This conclusion manages to ignore most of Ireland’s 30-year history in the EU, or EEC. It’s only in the last 10 years, at most, that the Celtic Tiger has turned the Republic of Ireland into an identikit Western-capitalist economy. For 20 Europeanized years before that, it remained a postcolonial basket case, where it was still possible to argue coherently about whether this island was really in the First World at all. EU subsidies helped enrich big farmers, while small holders suffered. Multinational companies repatriated brawny profits while unemployment stayed in double digits. In the 1980s emigration reached a late-20th-century peak, draining away even the beneficiaries of an improved free-education system. All you EU-aspirants who want to join up and “be like Ireland”, please rewind the tape to our accession in 1973, then watch and learn.

Of course the EU did bring “development” to Ireland, including the road-building craze that shows no sign of abating. The extraordinary (and unequal) economic growth of the 1990s would not have taken place if Ireland were not in the EU, but its causes were so contingent–principally the coincidence of a period of US economic growth with US corporate and foreign-policy interest in this corner of Europe–that it is ludicrous to expect that it will be repeated elsewhere, especially now that we know how chimerical the Nineties US “miracle” actually was. Of course European corporate interests are potentially keen on further expansion in the direction of the low-wage opportunities offered by eastern Europe in the EU, but you can ask the majority of Mexicans how well such companies spread the benefits of their “free trade”. Even the direct EU funding for “cohesion” from which poorer member-states such as Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain have previously benefited are unlikely to reach any generous heights in a period of economic contraction, and with 10 countries set to join up simultaneously in just over a year’s time.

So how did Ireland deliver such a resounding Yes to Nice, having voted 54-46 No the last time out? Many Dublin pundits have pointed to the fact that in purely numerical terms the No vote this year was roughly the same as last year, and that Yes benefited from a substantial increase in the total vote. (The turnout was still well below 50 per cent). Their conclusion: many Yes voters abstained last time because of apathy and a weak campaign, but this time they came out. Such simplistic arithmetic holds remarkable sway: its picture of No voters as a permanent manic minority unamenable to persuasion but defeatable through democratic mobilisation of the natural pro-EU majority is appealing to the Yes establishment, legitimizing its objectively anti-democratic decision to re-run the referendum. It’s also half-truthful at best, as anyone with any statistical instincts should be able to tell you.

Clearly an awful lot of voters changed their minds, mainly from No to Yes. The reasons for this are of course many and varied, but aside from the fact that Yes outspent No five-to-one, and had far more institutional backing, a few others stand out. There was, for instance, moral pressure about and directly from the “accession states”, with politicians and diplomats from eastern Europe ever-present in the media in recent months, taking the debatable benefits of EU membership as given. There was also the government’s maneuver to neutralize neutrality as an issue, with a promise from fellow member-states to respect Ireland’s traditions and a constitutional addendum stating that Ireland wouldn’t join any EU common-defense pact.

Now this ostensibly anti-militarist stance sounds more substantial than it really is. It does nothing, for instance, to stop US troops from moving through Shannon Airport en route to any upcoming battle in Iraq, as is happening at present. It does nothing to slow Ireland’s involvement in the European Rapid Reaction Force, with which more than 60,000 troops (850 of them Irish) can be deployed up to 4,000km from the EU’s borders. (Still-non-EU Turkey has been conveniently permitted to commit forces and equipment to the RRF, for what should be obvious geostrategic reasons.) It wouldn’t even prevent Ireland from joining NATO. Nonetheless, some of the most unintentionally hilarious post-referendum commentary came from politicians who were philosophically regretting that even this expedient amendment had been deemed necessary to carry the nation; they openly, arrogantly, looked forward to a chance to reverse course in the not-too-distant future.

For left-wing No campaigners who failed to convince the electorate with concerns about militarization, privatization and democracy, there was nonetheless a bright side. The failure and humiliation of the right-wing No campaign was even more obvious and abject. Its attempts to introduce anti-immigration sentiment into the argument largely foundered, and its leader, Justin Barrett, was skewered by revelations that he had spoken to meetings of far-right parties with neo-fascist trappings in both Germany and Italy. (His excuse that he can’t speak German or Italian and so didn’t know the politics of his hosts met with little sympathy; a brown shirt is a brown shirt in any luggage and any language.)

There is no doubt that the main party in the Irish government, Fianna Fail, has a deft hand at bringing forth smear stories–and showed its touch against left campaigners too in recent weeks. Still, the exposing of Barrett, and the continuing intolerance of Irish voters for obvious far-right bigotry, was some consolation after an otherwise dismal, depressing result, in which more insidious and powerful conservative forces came out on top.

HARRY BROWNE is a lecturer in journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology and a columnist with The Irish Times. Contact him at harrybrowne@eircom.net.