IF IFA hadn’t raised the world trade issue in the run-up to the Lisbon Treaty vote, the no lobby would have gone to town on it, and stirred up even greater fear of the EU among farmers and the food industry.
Many farmers could easily have been persuaded to vote no — rather than say yes to improved decision making in a European Union which was willing in world trade talks to give away 50,000 Irish jobs in food manufacturing and services, and put 50,000 Irish farmers out of business.
On the other hand, raising the issue may have re-awakened anti-farmer feelings among those who saw IFA’s pre-Lisbon demands as a form of blackmail, and that may have helped the no side. Faced with this dilemma, IFA sought assurance from the Government — in early April — that it would use its veto in an EU Council to defeat the trade proposals.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen fobbed farmers off, and said Lisbon and WTO were separate issues. That’s when the “blackmail” became front page news, as farmers responded with a march of 15,000 in Dublin, in mid-April.
And the issue continued to bubble in public until June 3, when the Taoiseach give in to IFA demands, with only a week to go to the referendum.
Dealing quietly with the matter behind closed doors might have delivered better results. But it’s water under the bridge, and IFA President Padraig Walshe said after the vote that reflection was needed, rather than a blame game, and said the referendum outcome could not be allowed to weaken Ireland’s position in Europe or damage our business and farming interests.
In reality, the blame game had started before the referendum, with pro-yes politicians — already fearful of a too-close-for-comfort outcome — saying farmers had played a high risk game, by refusing to back a yes vote unless the Taoiseach made a veto promise.
Politicians on the Yes side challenged IFA as to how they would win over their no voting members, with only a week to go to the vote.
It was pointed out that the Government, the main opposition parties — nearly the entire “establishment” — had spent three months campaigning for a yes vote, but were still behind in the opinion polls.
IFA would have to shout down an often shrill no lobby, in what experienced politicians on the yes side have described as one of the biggest and most difficult referendum campaigns ever.
This scapegoating of IFA in advance of the vote smacked of defeatism on the Yes side.
After the vote, farmers must be on guard against it turning into a form of discrimination.
As it turned out, IFA’s poll of more than 3,000 of its members has indicated that 76% voted yes. Their poll two weeks before the referendum had shown 19% of members voting yes, 42% voting no and 39% undecided. Obviously, no stone was left unturned in IFA’s bid to honour what it saw as a “deal” — to devote all its commitment and resources to ensuring a Yes vote, in return for the Taoiseach’s world trade deal promise.
The Taoiseach can tell the European Council today that it wasn’t among farmers that the 110,000 votes that could have continued the momentum of EU reform were lost.
And that farmers are prepared to work closely with Government and all other relevant parties to find a way forward, whereby Ireland can retain its position at the heart of Europe.
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