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The Irish Lisbon Referendum

The Irish Lisbon Referendum


Of all the 27 countries of the European Union, Ireland is the only one which grants its citizens the right to decide upon the acceptance or rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. This gives the Irish voters a very special role which could be seen as a boon or a bane. On the one hand it gives the Irish the opportunity to vote on the future of the whole EU, on the other hand it puts a lot of pressure and responsibility on this small island nation; a pressure that often seriously marred the fairness of the referendum.

The referendum fosters the debate on the Lisbon Treaty, stirring up public interest in a way unparalleled in the rest of the EU – except for maybe the United Kingdom and Austria, where citizens were denied a referendum they felt entitled to. During the five weeks between the resignation of former Taoiseach (prime minister) Cowen on May 6 and the referendum on June 12, the major Irish newspaper where brimming with articles about the referendum and the campaigns of the proponents and opponents of the treaty, giving both sides ample space to advocate their positions. On the internet the debate was carried on by numerous blogs and forums, as well as by the official websites of the campaigning parties and organizations. In the street of Ireland posters urging for a Yes or a No vote were omnipresent; street campaigns for the referendum saw the heads of major parties and NGOs tour the country on a daily basis. What a difference to a country like Germany, where the treaty was ratified by the parliament with hardly any public attention at all!

But while the huge attention given to the referendum was generally something very positive, it also had its drawbacks. Two of most important ones among them are the often unfair and misleading arguments used to influence the voters and the huge pressure put upon the Irish by not only their government but also from outside the state. Officials of the union, including the President of the EU Parliament Pöttering, Wallström, Barroso and Merkel, all visited Ireland to canvass the Yes-Vote, a priceless boost for the proponents of the treaty at the expense of EU taxpayers. After he came to power on the May 6, the new Taoiseach Brian Cowen intensified the previously low energy government campaign, using bullyboy tactics to press for a Yes vote, including to threaten those inside his party that dissent from the Pro-Lisbon party line with expulsion.

Another rather unsavoury tactic employed by the Yes-Campaign was to portray the No-Side as hooligans, lunatics and extremists. These arguments where not only used by politicians but also by the media. Although the media strived to appear fair and impartial, and frequently gave the No-Side the opportunity to present their views, too, a general bias towards the Yes-Side was all too obvious. One example of this was their frequent linking of the No-Campaign to the French nationalist Le Pen. In January 2008, Le Pen had been invited to Ireland by the Law Society of University College Dublin to take part in a debate about the Lisbon Treaty. Although the visit was cancelled, the French right-wing extremist was still frequently mentioned in newspapers in connection to the Irish anti-Lisbon campaign – clearly an attempted to discredit the No-camp.

This bias of the traditional media towards the Yes-Camp weighs even more, as the internet, which offered all groups the opportunity to present themselves in their own words, is not widely available to the Irish population. According to a recent survey, only 49.6 percent of the Irish use the internet – one of the lowest ratings in Western Europe. Street campaigns and public meetings also played a huge role, with one group of the No-Campaign, Libertas, being the one with the highest official campaign spending – about one million euro.

Contrary to the claims of the Yes-Camp, the opponents of the Lisbon treaty are not only found on the fringes of society. The divide between the two camps runs right through the centre. Most unions and business organisations adopted their position not without ferocious internal debate, many not being able to adopt an official position of Yes or No because either side being unable to gain the required majority.

Monitoring the Irish Referendum we have applied the criteria set by the Initiative and Referendum Institute (IRI) to them (with a few slight changes and modifications). Our findings show how much a basically very fair process was damaged by government pressure and EU intervention.

Markus Schmidgen

Continue to the evaluation.

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