Honesty needed in referendum debate

THIS referendum debate can be reduced to competing emotions and a few heads shouting ‘Look at me!”.

First, the emotions. Opinion polls are showing that an awful lot of people don’t really know what the Fiscal Compact Treaty is about. Last week, the Milward Brown poll had 35% of the electorate in the “don’t know” category. Among those who have made up their minds to vote yes or no, over 30% admit to not having a clear understanding of the issue.

They’re not alone. I would suspect that far more than that cohort have a weak grasp. Many, if not most, voters are making up their minds based on matters other than the specifics of the treaty.

The two sides parrot their respective slogans about stability and austerity, but in emotional terms it’s all down to fear and anger.

These two emotions have welled to the surface over the last four years as the national and global economies have fallen into turmoil. Which one is to the fore in the minds of individual voters will play a major role on how the referendum will go.

There is constant fear over where it might all end. Will I have work tomorrow? Will Greece still be in the euro tomorrow? Will Ireland still be in the euro tomorrow? Will there be a euro tomorrow? Will there be a tomorrow? “The future is uncertain,” as Jim Morrison once sang, “And the end is always near.”

For those whose primary response to unfolding events is to fret, the only real choice is to vote yes. Whatever about the merits or otherwise of the specifics, there is little doubt but that a no vote will lead to further uncertainty in the short term.

Those who advocate a no vote would contend that the long-term future would be a lot better, but these days many people can’t see beyond tomorrow.

On the no side, the predominant emotion is anger. This emotion has been a widespread response to the recession and is as justified as the fear that is felt.

There is anger over how the economy was run into the ground. Anger over the apparent impunity of those who fiddled while the economy burned and sailed off into retirement with their pockets weighed down.

There is anger at the cutbacks, mistakenly labelled as austerity. There is anger that Irish citizens are carrying the bank debts of German banks. Anger is growing at the manner in which Germany appears to be subverting the whole notion of democracy within the European Union. And there is anger that the policies that have been implemented since 2008 appear to be driving the economy in the wrong direction.

For those who look back in anger at the whole shebang, the only way to vote is no. Telling Angela Merkel and the Eurocrats to get stuffed would be the natural response of angry men and women. It would also serve notice that the citizens of this country are of the opinion that they have taken enough harsh medicine from the centres of European power, and they ain’t going to take no more.

But, a Government voice might interject, anger is not a policy. Sure thing it’s not, but neither is fear, and the yes side is to a large extent basing its campaign on fear.

The treaty is largely concerned with ensuring that national budgets stay balanced. In the opinion of many observers, including your columnist, the exercise is merely a tool for German leaders to sell to their electorate in order to continue underwriting the European project.

The German people are getting fed up with, as they see it, bailing out feckless members. Of course the same Germans also prefer to ignore the role in spreading credit like manure when interest rates were low in order to suit the German economy.

In any event, there are perfectly good reasons to go along with what the Germans want. There are also good reasons to tell them to take a hike. Butif the debate could focus on the real driving force behind the treaty it might bring a smidgen of honesty to the whole thing. One matter that shouldn’t really be countenanced in the debate is sovereignty. It’s a bit late to be decrying the dilution of sovereignty a decade after the country joined the single European currency.

This referendum, like so many on Europe which went before, will primarily engage the electorate on how it might affect pockets rather than anything else.

For some of the players in the debate, all their Christmases have arrived in one. Last week Declan Ganley belatedly entered the fray. Prior to that he had sat on the fence and the campaign was in danger of passing him by.

So he leapt down and got stuck in. Since then he has been all over the media. He is articulate, and loves the limelight and could talk for Ireland. His love of the microphone is reciprocated by the media which loves a performer.

He has no electoral mandate. He is a businessman whose interests within and without Ireland are not really known, and he fronts an organisation called Libertas, which appears to be largely a one-man band. He would never have forgiven himself if he hadn’t weighed in with his opinions, as media opportunities like a referendum don’t come around that often.

ON THE other side, the best performer by far has been Micheál Martin. The campaign will have propelled him further along the road to Damascus. He knows his onions when it comes to debating on Europe. He has been presented with a golden opportunity to show that Fianna Fáil nua is a different animal.

In the bad old days, when in opposition, the party would have sat back and enjoyed the Government getting a bloody nose in a referendum. (As Fine Gael did to some extent in Lisbon I.)

But Martin has stood up to show that under his stewardship the party will do what’s right for the country rather than advantageous to the party. He may get some brownie points for his campaign performance, but don’t bet on it.

For others, like David Begg, the debate offers the opportunity to appear relevant again. Since the collapse of the economy, Begg’s Ictu has been increasingly sidelined. Where once it was the chief social partner running the country, now it is falling into afterthought. Then along comes a referendum that divides the union movement and provides Begg with the opportunity to talk plenty without committing to either side.

Finally, we have the wavering independent TDs, none more so than Mr Shane Ross. To be fair to him, he has been increasingly relevant through the recession, making a series of interventions and observations that are on the money. The referendum campaign, however, has brought out the showman in him. He is enjoying his tenure on the fence, fielding the limelight, keeping the media guessing as to his intentions. Will he, won’t he?

Who knows, who can tell, whether this referendum is heaven or hell.

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