Default positions?

The yes and no camps have 10 days to convince voters before they head to the polls.

As undecideds make up their minds on the fiscal treaty, Noel Baker visits Donegal and Dún Laoghaire to see if the outcomes there are as predictable as they seem

Dún Laoghaire – Always votes Yes

IN AN era of austerity, there are different degrees of hardship. Take the leafy glades of Dalkey village, where some commercial units lie empty but a cup of coffee in one of its cafes can still set you back €3.05.

Last Thursday, plenty of people were seeking refuge in the shops and cafes of one of Dublin’s most exclusive areas as the rain pounded down outside. It was a day for the high stool, but it was probably a fair guess that the upcoming referendum on Ireland’s future access to a European bailout mechanism was not top of the agenda. Maybe that is because everybody already knows how they are going to vote.

Analyse the results of referenda from 1937 to 2011 and it becomes apparent that the constituency tends to vote a particular way on the issues of the day. For example, it voted in favour of the Lisbon Treaty by more than 4:1 in 2009, and by almost 2:1 in the first Lisbon Treaty when it was turned down by the electorate overall.

It overwhelmingly passed the Nice Treaty in 2002 and also voted in favour at the first time of asking. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy) Bill 2001 was not approved nationally and in Dún Laoghaire was rejected by a clear majority.

Even going back to the dissolution of marriage referendum of 1995, the electorate in this constituency gave it the largest number of yes votes in the country and a clear margin of victory, at 2:1.

So, is it likely that people here will vote yes in the upcoming referendum and help save the Government from some potentially awkward bartering with our EU overlords?

Paddy Gill, owner of the Handworks shop on the main street, isn’t so sure. He has been in business here for 12 years and among the items sold are “I love Dalkey” stickers. “I love the treaty” might not sell as well.

“I think it’s changing by the day,” he says of sentiment towards the referendum, “especially after the elections in France and Greece. There could be an alliance on anti-austerity.”

He is not sure how he will vote and admits: “I usually know exactly what I’m doing, but I will probably go no as a protest.”

Against what, exactly?

“The whole European austerity kind of fix — it’s to bail out governments and banks at a cost to the citizen.”

He admits there is less immediate evidence of hardship in Dalkey, a place where, generally, “people have a few bob put away” and it is a “mature, old money type of area”. However, he has seen some businesses in the locale go under and admits that in the past two years he had to consider whether it was worth keeping going with his own shop, given the fall in turnover.

Oliver McCabe has been running the Select Stores health food shop in Dalkey since 2004 and is the public relations officer of the Dalkey Business Group. He is keeping his own voting intentions to himself but claims there has been “some confusion” over what the treaty will actually mean.

“It reminds me of the Lisbon Treaty,” he says, adding that recent developments in Greece and France has further clouded the issue. In fact, he thinks it would be a good idea for Taoiseach Enda Kenny to take to the airwaves, as he did at the end of last year, and spell out exactly what we are voting for.

“People are nervous,” he says. “People will not vote because they do not know.”

He says that in 2010, when the local business group began, about 10 businesses closed; some were swiftly replaced but since then others have fallen into difficulty.

Another member of the business group, Bláithín O’Brien, operates the Dalkey Pharmacy. She will vote yes, but has some reservations.

“We have to balance the budget at some stage in the procedure,” she says, arguing that access to another bailout fund would be essential for consumer and investor confidence. “If you look at Greece, who voted no, the whole thing is in chaos. I think people do feel a bit removed from the whole thing because it is bank debt we are paying for.”

For her, Ireland is more vulnerable being outside the EU than it is inside the EU, and she does not necessarily see it as simply guarding against the worst case scenario.

“Is it fear or just being practical?” she asks.

Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown is a broad constituency. Two stops up the Dart line is Dún Laoghaire proper. Palpably less well-to-do, it also carries the scars of recent times: Many shopping units lie idle while the string of charity shops seem to be doing a reasonable trade. If Dalkey is tweed, Dún Laoghaire is more duffel coat and tracksuit.

Trish McCormack runs the NCBI charity shop on George’s St and echoes the views of many people here when she says she does not intend voting because she does not feel sufficiently informed about the issues.

Dún Laoghaire resident Mary Lynch, a mother to two grown-up children, says she will vote yes because “we need it”. Otherwise, she says, “we are going to be left out in the cold”.

In the last general election, Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit was elected as one of the four TDs in the area, reflecting the diverse electorate in the constituency and, arguably, a growing dissatisfaction with more established parties. Mary says that while she would sympathise with some of the views expressed by the left, “we have a lot less to lose” by voting yes.

She is not blind to the shortcomings of the Dún Laoghaire area, claiming it has been in decline for 15 years, even during the boom years.

She also believes the area is “segregated” between richer and poorer, a view shared by Donegal man Johnny Doherty who lives and works in the borough. He is not going to vote at all as “politics is too corrupt”.

He believes utterances, such as those made by Finance Minister Michael Noonan in which the spectre of soup kitchens in Athens was evoked, are simply “scare tactics for sure”.

“A few of my friends aren’t going to vote either,” he says. “They’re apathetic about politics.”

So it seems the yes side has it, but it’s not resounding. Maybe those “I love the treaty” stickers wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.

Donegal – Always votes No

EAVESDROPPING never gives you the full story. Take last Monday in O’Hehir’s coffee shop in Letterkenny when two businessmen were discussing the state of the economy — the Greek economy.

The drachma was mentioned, as were “soup kitchens”. You might be forgiven for thinking that Donegal’s largest town was in the grip of a eurozone discussion and that they would be digesting the terms of the upcoming referendum for breakfast, dinner, and tea.

No chance. In the Courtyard Shopping Centre I asked one woman for her opinion. She replied with a grimace: “I’ve just had a filling” — as though talking about our European duties would add to the pain.

Another lady, puffing on a cigarette as she walked up the street, cheerfully responded “don’t even mention it” when asked about the referendum. All in all, pulling teeth is possibly easier than getting a range of responses on a referendum that has left many people in this county utterly nonplussed.

Donegal engages with issues as much, if not more than, any other county in Ireland, but it tends to vote differently. In its two constituencies of Donegal North East and Donegal South West, the county delights in confounding convention, lending it the somewhat misleading tag of “the county that always votes no”.

It sometimes does vote no, though. Take Lisbon II, when a chastened electorate finally embraced the unloved and hitherto unread treaty. In both Donegal constituencies the majority still rejected it. The margin of the winning no vote was even greater in Lisbon I, while in the Nice Treaty — at the second time of asking — the county only narrowly voted in favour, whereas nationally it was 2:1 in favour of accepting the proposal.

Long before euroscepticism was trendy, the people of Donegal had a questioning, if not contrarian, view of Brussels. It is hard to see whether that outlook will alter this time around; from the feedback in Letterkenny and elsewhere, it does not seem likely.

Kate McGinley from Letterkenny will vote no, and in explaining why, reveals that in some ways this referendum is likely to be a chance for voters to register their dissatisfaction about issues closer to home. “We are the forgotten county,” she says, a view echoed by many here.

“People are thinking in terms of ‘I don’t think it will change anything’.”

She believes that it continues a theme where people pay for the mistakes of “big banks”, but mentions the effects of the recession on her industrial cleaning business and her community.

“Take a look around,” she says, pointing to the interior of the pristine shopping centre and the small number of people occupying it.

“The people I feel sorry for are the younger generation. People my age will get by.”

She has a son who has been in Australia for the last three years and he is likely to stay there for some time, driving heavy machinery at a mine near Perth.

Her friend Michael McGlynn is also unsure as to the merits of the treaty and what it will do for the area, claiming that Donegal is “left on its own”. Kate sums it up: “I think a lot of people around here think Europe is taking over the country.”

The referendum is not a talking point in many places: They weren’t talking about it in the Cottage Bar on the main street, with attention instead on a man who had celebrated a big win at the bookies the previous day thanks to the final day in the Premier League. He asked the woman behind the bar if he’d been in the previous day: he had, confirmed when he spotted his coat hanging over in the corner.

In the shops, the topic of the referendum wasn’t engaging many either, with Eileen McGinley from Manorcunningham, claiming anyone she had spoken to about it had said they would probably vote no. She gave the Government a pasting, claiming “they have to come down from their ivory tower”.

On the road outside the offices of Highland Radio, the most listened-to local radio station in the country, a large sign reads “vote no to austerity”. Inside, Shaun Doherty, host of the station’s flagship talk show, admits that when it comes to radio minutes, the referendum has lagged behind other issues such as the household charge and access to local health services.

The Can’t Pay Won’t Pay group has been very vocal on issues such as the household charge, he says, while even local politicians attempting to talk up the treaty do not always sound as if they are entirely convinced of its merits.

“There is a great feeling of alienation up here,” he says, referring to Donegal people’s sense that they often “don’t count”.

Asked what listeners have been saying about the treaty and the referendum, he draws the word “confusion” in large letters on a notepad.

Shaun and Donal Kavanagh, from the station’s newsroom, agree that emigration and the wider issue of austerity are what are engaging listeners, alongside the Catholic Church and its travails.

The waters have also been muddied with events in Greece and France and the notion that whatever we vote for, it’ll be all change next month anyway.

“I think there will be another treaty [to vote on],” says Donal. “I do not believe any more that it will be the end of the story.”

Donegal, understandably, has strong feelings about that which it does not have. Many bemoan the lack of infrastructure, the shortage of jobs, the lack of a railway line, and the fact that its airport — a vital link to much of the county — seems perennially under the microscope. Fr John Joe Duffy, the parish priest on Arranmore Island, has been a vocal presence in the campaign to stop cutbacks and closures of local schools. On Arranmore and other communities where fishing was the life blood, there is still bafflement and frustration at how EU regulations have stripped away livelihoods.

And yet, perhaps surprisingly, the Killybegs Fishing Organisation has tentatively suggested that a yes vote is better for the country in the long run. The group’s chief executive Sean O’Donoghue said he would favour a yes vote, as does the organisation’s Martin Howley, who says: “I would think the feeling among the members would be that a no vote could be disastrous for Ireland.”

There is still uncertainty as to how Donegal will vote, but many believe that there is an air of fatigue about it all: Years of speaking about bonds and debt burden has lain us all low. Shaun Doherty says “we are a very insecure nation”, while his colleague, Donal Kavanagh, wonders whether as a country we are moving through the phases associated with grief, from anger through fear and the rest and settling on acceptance. Who can say whether it will mark the end of the affair?


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