FERGUS FINLAY: There’s no end to austerity in sight no matter how we vote

I DOZED off in front of the telly on Saturday night, but woke up in time to switch channels and catch the RTÉ nine o’clock news.

It was all about the opinion poll on the referendum, with political party support figures thrown in for good measure.

Good news on the referendum, with the yes campaign establishing what I call a working lead. And lovely, finely-poised party figures, of the sort you’d love to spend hours analysing.

In short, just the sort of thing a political anorak like me loves to watch on a Saturday night.

But for the rest of the family there was no contest.

Even switching over to the news caused a protest, and it was clear that if I waited for detailed analysis from David McCullough I’d be depriving everyone else of a much more important outcome — the result of Britain’s Got Talent.

You’ve probably heard by now. A dog won it. 62 million people in Great Britain, and the most talented performer they have turned out to be a dog. A clever, good-looking, floppy dog, to be sure, but still a dog. And its owner walked away with half a million sterling and an invitation to appear in front of Her Majesty at the next Royal Variety show.

Of course it was good for an argument. There was also an astonishing young couple on the show, called Jonathan and Charlotte, whose voices will (I reckon) become as popular around the world as the voice of Susan Boyle. How the dog beat them is a complete mystery.

You’re probably thinking by now about how I need to get a life, spending my Saturday nights flipping channels between the latest opinion polls and a performing dog. Well, it gets worse, because I actually ended up dreaming about them all.

To be more specific, I dreamt that Pudsey (I’m fairly sure that was the dog’s name) ended up as a candidate in a general election in Ireland, appeared on Prime Time with Miriam O’Callaghan, and came within an ass’s roar (can a dog produce an ass’s roar?) of winning a seat.

Fortunately, Pudsey was pipped for a seat by Shane Ross, the stockbroker turned journalist turned media star turned politician. He’s as gifted a performer as Pudsey, no doubt about that. I couldn’t tell you how often I’ve heard him in the last few days commenting on the referendum, and he still won’t tell us how he’s going to vote on May 31. He’s got to be entertaining, because he’s sure hard to take seriously.

His essential argument is that the election of Francois Hollande in France is a game changer, so we should cancel the referendum until we see how things turn out. Sounds plausible and attractive, until you think about it for a minute. If nothing else, it would save poor old Shane, an elected representative of the people, from telling us how he intends to vote.

He’s been shying away from that minor responsibility, as far as I can see, since this debate began. I read the Dáil Report on the debate, which went on over three days, and I’m reasonably certain that Shane was the only independent TD who made no contribution whatever to the debate. He did, however, vote in favour of the principle of holding the referendum, and at committee stage he voted in favour of the wording now being put to the people.

But still, he expects his suggestion that we should now postpone the referendum to be taken seriously. Of course there are tactical and strategic arguments that need to be considered in relation to a suggestion like that — and they’d be really important arguments, no doubt, if this was a decision where European unanimity was required.

The reality, of course, is that if we decide to delay ratification, the rest of the eurozone will shrug its shoulders and go about its business.

But there’s another slight issue. We’re unique in Ireland in having a referendum at all. It may be a nuisance, but we’ve come to regard these things as a fundamental right.

It isn’t possible to have a referendum under our constitution without the Dáil debating the issue extensively and deciding to hold it. In this case the Dáil decided to put the question to the people by a large majority, and a similar majority — 93 to 21 — supported the wording.

For a government now to decide, even on Shane Ross’s recommendation, to decide that the people shouldn’t after all have the right to vote, without some profound constitutional reason, would be deeply wrong and dangerous. Once that precedent was established, what would stop any future government from withdrawing a referendum if, say, the opinion polls turned against them?

But even Shane Ross’s arguments have more plausibility than the posters we’re now seeing every day. Vote No to Austerity, some of them say. Others are more challenging — How much more austerity are you prepared to take, they demand.

I’ve only one question. I’m dying to vote no to austerity. I’m not prepared to take any more of it, not ten years nor even five. But I have yet to hear one argument that tells me I can end austerity by voting against it. If I thought that the casting of a vote would restore growth to our economy, I’d be first in line to support a no vote.

BUT there is no end to austerity in sight, no matter how we vote. In fact, watching the horror that’s beginning to unfold in Greece, the only thing that’s clear is that we’re not going to make it on our own. That doesn’t mean selling our souls, but it does mean pretty clear-headed about what we need to do to restore our own future. The sight of elderly people queuing for food in Athens, carrying all their belongings in miserable bundles on their backs, while their political leaders squabble over who has the most commitment to the country’s sovereignty, is pretty sickening.

A Sinn Féin TD wrote a letter to this paper the other day, suggesting that I must be totally conflicted between party loyalties that demand a yes vote, and opposition to austerity that demands a no vote. I don’t feel any sense of conflict. In fact I’m quite clear that to argue, as his letter did, that “yes” equals more austerity, while “no” equals less austerity, is to offer an entirely false and dishonest choice.

The unpalatable truth is that the road ahead of all of us in this economy is, in the medium term, difficult. People like me will continue to argue for more fairness in the way decisions are made, but we all know in our hearts there are no easy decisions. In that context, yes equals a bit more certainty in finding our way; no leaves us without any road map whatever.

People get that, I think. That’s why, unusually in the middle of a referendum campaign, opinion has begun to swing behind a positive vote. The more difficult the journey, the more we need a road map. That’s why a majority of us, maybe with a heavy heart, are now increasingly saying yes.


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