Dodgy Doings in Dublin


how the Irish people lost the replay

Anthony Coughlan writes: In response to requests for a summary account of why Irish voters voted Yes to exactly the same Nice Treaty as they rejected last year, I give below for your information the principal reasons as my colleagues and I see them.

There were two major differences between Ireland's Nice Two referendum and Nice One.

(1) In Nice Two, in contrast to Nice One, there was no public money behind the No-side arguments, because of the removal of this function from the neutral statutory Referendum Commission last December. This body had been given large sums of public money in Nice One to put the Yes-side and No-side cases. That particularly helped the No-side, as they are the poorer of the two. The fact that there was substantial public money behind the Yes-side and No-side arguments in Nice One also meant that private interests did not bother advertising on that occasion. In Nice Two by contrast, the removal of its Yes/No-argument function from the Referendum Commission cleared a free field for private advertising. This was in a ratio of approximately 20 to 1 in favour of the Yes. Thus, for example, the Yes-side posters were mostly put up by private companies that were paid so many euros per poster to do so, whereas the No-side posters were put up by volunteers.

(2) The change in the referendum question: The question the Irish people were asked to vote on in Nice Two was essentially a trick question. There was an extra clause in the constitutional amendment in Nice Two compared with Nice One. This extra clause said that Ireland could not join an EU defence pact without holding a referendum to change its Constitution. This had nothing to do with the Treaty of Nice and was quite irrelevant to the Treaty's ratification. It was inserted as a third clause in addition to the two clauses that were needed to ratify Nice, and all three had to be voted on as one. This extra clause, if it were to be put to the people at all, should properly have been put as a separate referendum proposition, on which people could vote separately. Instead people voted last Saturday on a three-clause amendment which contained two different joined propositions, to which only one answer could be given, a Yes or a No.

This trick question in Nice Two meant also that the Referendum Commission's other main function, to inform citizens what the referendum was about - for which it was given double the budget of last year (viz. 4.5 million euros) - was inherently confusing, and was biased significantly towards the Yes side. In the event, the Referendum Commission, which was the principal aid to the No side in Nice One, was objectively of significant help to the Yes-side in Nice Two.

These two changes to the basic referendum rules enabled the Irish Government and its allies successfully to impose their campaign agenda in Nice Two. They succeeded in representing Nice Two as a vote for or against "Jobs and Growth," "EU Enlargement," or "Putting Neutrality into the Irish Constitution" - which were largely irrelevant to the real issue. Most Yes-side voters voted in effect for these desirable things, thinking that they were voting on the Treaty of Nice, but without being aware of the actual content of the treaty, which had little or nothing to do with these matters.

The Yes-side's success in imposing its agenda in the last two weeks of the referendum campaign, deriving mainly from the above two factors, was helped by appeals for a Yes vote from the 10 Prime Ministers of the Applicant countries, by the likes of Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa making similar appeals, by the ambassadors of the Applicant countries writing a Yes-side letter to the Irish Times, by the Czech and Polish ambassadors actively campaigning for a Yes, by the Irish Catholic Hierarchy positively supporting the Yes side, which they had never done in previous EU-related referendums, and by a number of other factors that variously affected the Yes-side and No-side votes. But in our judgement they were of small significance compared to the two factors mentioned.

The National Platform is of the view that were it not for the above two changes in Nice Two as compared to Nice One, the No side could have won the 19 October referendum. As it was, the 37% No vote - much the same as last year's No - was very creditable in the circumstances. That vote remains as a strong block to oppose the EU State Constitutional Treaty that is already

being prepared for 2004/2005.

Anthony Coughlan is national secretary of Ireland's EU-critical National Platform.