Jun 2008

Referendum Day

Well I’m just back from casting my ‘No’ vote. I had a brief chat with one of the people running the polling station who told me that turn-out has been quite low so far (though from what she’s heard, it’s a good deal lower elsewhere). Of course, there’s still another couple of hours to go and traditionally the 7pm to 9pm slot is busiest out here in the commuter-belt.

All of the media reports thus far seem to suggest that it’s going to be very very close indeed, but that a low turn-out could present problems for the ‘Yes’ campaign given that anti-Lisbon sentiment appears to be more deeply-held than the pro-Lisbon line.

It’s the first time I’ve ever voted in a referendum as it happens (it’s the first one we’ve had since my return to Ireland) and although I’m actually quite divided on this issue, the sections of the Treaty which appear to tie Europe to a disastrous energy policy were just enough to nudge me from abstention into voting against it.

I firmly believe in the European project and in a stronger European Union, which is why I’m so dismayed at this treaty. I’d much rather be voting in favour of closer integration, but not if it means giving my tacit support to the building of new nuclear power stations.

Incidentally, I’m 100% convinced that I could have won this referendum for the ‘Yes’ campaign by quite a decent margin (which may yet happen, of course). Having listened to several debates, as well as the impassioned pleas of politicians (almost always in favour of the treaty), there’s one clear trick that’s been missed. A month ago, the ‘Yes’ campaign should have kicked off like this…

John Bowman: Good evening, and welcome to Questions & Answers. This week, amongst other things, sees the beginning of the Lisbon referendum campaign and our panel tonight will be discussing the treaty. Our first question comes from Nancy Peterson.

Audience member (Nancy): Simply put, could the panel explain why we should — or should not — vote for this treaty?

JB: Straightforward enough, one would think, why should we vote for, or against, the Lisbon treaty? First to Trade and Employment Minister, Billy Kelleher. Minister, presumably you support the Fianna Fáil position in favour of the treaty? Why should Nancy, and our other viewers, vote ‘Yes’?

Billy Kelleher: Good evening John, Nancy, ladies and gentlemen. There’s no question that the Lisbon Treaty is a difficult document to digest, but if you persevere with it then you discover that it’s a very very positive step not just for Europe as a whole, but also for us here in Ireland. I’ve heard it said, with no little contempt I might add, that voting for Lisbon is voting with your wallet. Frankly I find that insulting. Voting for this treaty is the right thing to do in principle, and I honestly doubt that many of those who will vote ‘Yes’ on June 12th will be doing so out of purely selfish motives………

And from that moment on; every time the ‘Yes’ campaign put forward its case in the media, it should have been accompanied by the phrase “voting with your wallet” in that same, throwaway, “actually we want to distance ourselves from this idea” kind of manner.

Because it’s a sad truth, but large numbers of people do vote with personal self-interest in mind. This is one of the (many) great flaws in representative democracy. “Personal self-interest” does not necessarily (or even regularly) equate with “what’s best for society as a whole”, so that elections often end up with large numbers of people deliberately voting against what’s best for society, in the belief — for instance — that a slight increase in their own personal wealth somehow offsets unsustainable economic policies.

Of course, there’s absolutely no evidence that the Lisbon treaty, if adopted, will be financially beneficial to the average Irish voter, but because no bugger understands the treaty, it would not be too difficult to present it that way (it’s very “business-friendly” after all). Once you have unconsciously linked a “Yes” vote with “Voting with your wallet” in the mind of the electorate, it becomes extremely difficult for many people to vote “No”.

Of course, both campaigns did attempt to do this, but it was always in pretty abstract language; “the treaty secures Ireland as a centre for foreign investment” says the ‘Yes’ campaign. “The treaty imposes European tax regulations upon us which will reduce our competitiveness when attracting foreign investment” says the ‘No’ campaign. Who do you believe?

In truth, you end up believing whichever one comes closest to your own personal prejudices. However, a sustained campaign which (with a modicum of subtlety) links “voting Yes” with “voting with your wallet”, bypasses personal beliefs altogether and becomes an unconscious drive within the collective psyche of the electorate.

Posted in: Opinion