Letter from Dublin

After I wrote in Counterpunch last week about the referendum campaign against the EU’s Nice Treaty in Ireland, I had a few emails from people shocked that Irish leftists should be trying to stall the development of a potential global counterweight to US power.

Some nostalgia for a bipolar world is not surprising among progressive people–it’s certainly arguable that the existence of the Soviet Union not only put brakes on US adventurism, but also offered options and bargaining power to states with some choice about their “sphere of influence”. My correspondents may turn out to be prescient in suggesting that the EU could revive such a role. However, on this side of the water, people familiar with the foreign policies of particular EU states–and the policies, such as they are, of the EU as a whole–are less inclined to believe that it can become a geopolitical force for benign social democracy. Look at how tied in to NATO its nascent “security and defense policy” is. Look at its arms merchants; its trade negotiators; its immigration barriers. It just ain’t that kind of institution. (Click here for Action Ireland’s arguments against the treaty. http://www.afri.buz.org/)

Here in Ireland, the political tendencies that are most enthusiastic about US power also tend to be the most effusively “pro-European”, and are certainly pushing for a Yes vote in the October 19 referendum. (This is now also the case in Britain, where the Blairites combine Euro-zeal with lapdog devotion to the “special relationship”.) In Ireland there are of course some Yes-voting left-liberals who combine criticism of the US with support for an EU-led alternative to the American imperium; these arguments tend to be made quietly, however; they are more prominent in the academic literature than in newspaper opinion columns. They certainly don’t fit on any of the billboards and posters now papering the Republic. (The latest spending estimate suggests that the Yes side–which includes the government, the two largest opposition parties, the employers’ organization and the main trade unions–is outpapering the combined No campaign by a margin of roughly five to one.)

The giant banner that went up on a Liffeyside building site this week illustrates something of the politics of the situation, which are probably baffling to outsiders. “No to War, No to Nice, No to American Terrorism”, it reads. The man responsible is Mick Wallace, described in the tabloids as a “millionaire builder”. Now, millionaire builders are as common as gulls along Dublin’s quays, home of the Celtic Tiger–a beast fed throughout the 1990s on a diet of US corporate investment and EU funding for infrastructure. Wallace, a long-haired, jeans-clad bit of rough who could definitely help turn-out the No vote among women of my acquaintance, is prepared to bite the hands that feed the Tiger. (His client on the site, Dublin City Council, doesn’t share his enthusiasm, but Wallace will fight them on free-speech grounds long enough to make his point loud and clear.)

Then, on the other hand, there’s the Labour party. Its latest Yes poster proclaims: “After all We’re Europeans.” This sentiment is embodied in the accompanying photograph, which shows a gleaming dinner setting, spread out on a stylish table; no diners or food has yet arrived, and if you look real close you can see that the placecards consist of tiny national flags. The point may be something along the lines of “Keep our place at the table”, but it can only remind voters of Labour’s longstanding asssociations with champagne and smoked salmon. The logo at the bottom reads “Party of European Socialists”, but “Party of European Socialites” is more like it.

In a state where we’ve got used to bosses and trade unions standing side-by-side in support of national wage agreements and such like, it’s the No side that contains the strangest bedfellows. Or so you might say, but the right and left wing No campaigns are completely separate and not even speaking to each other, let alone sharing the sheets. The “No to Nice Campaign” is led by an anti-abortion activist, Justin Barrett. He and his comrades see the EU as a threat to national sovereignty and traditional Irish-Catholic values. (Many liberals agree with him on the latter point and back European integration and institutions for that very reason.)

The “Alliance Against Nice” is a broadly left grouping containing the nominally Trot Socialist and Socialist Workers parties, but also the two big-growth parties from last May’s general election, Sinn Fein and the Greens. These parties, along with a number of left-leaning independent politicians, have considerable credibility with the electorate, even if the Greens risk alienating some of their more “cosmopolitan” middle-class voters with their anti-Nice stance–one not necessarily shared by Greens across Europe.

Sinn Fein’s troubles in the North, where party workers are accused of filching documents from the Northern Ireland Office, may have hastened the collapse of the Northern Executive, but it hasn’t damaged the party’s standing in the Republic. Folks here are inclined to skepticism about “dirty tricks” up yonder; Gerry Adams tells Irish radio and TV that the “Spy vs Spy” atmosphere is so bad there that when the British Secretary of State wants to talk seriously, he takes Adams out of his office. We lap it up.

The right wing’s No campaign–which on the face of it is a complaint about the transfer of power to the larger European states, but which also contains some scaremongering about immigration has little new to say after last year’s first referendum, and probably at most a quarter of the electorate to say it to. The outcome of the referendum depends heavily on whether left arguments about the EU’s possible attitudes and directives on privatising State assets are heard, and whether the debate on military neutrality–so far neutralised by the clever government maneuver I described here last week–can be reopened by the 19th. I wouldn’t bet on it, but Irish politics change far too quickly to make predictions with any confidence.

HARRY BROWNE is a lecturer in journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology and a columnist with The Irish Times. He can be reached at: harrybrowne@eircom.net


Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter @harrybrowne