Why we are being asked to vote again
Originally posted on Facebook
I wrote a piece here last week on the increased levels of democracy which will be introduced by the Lisbon Treaty. Among the comments which followed were some who brought up the old chestnut that this whole referendum is fundamentally undemocratic given that we already voted on this last year, which I want to counter here.
It was a complaint also levelled at the time of the second Nice referendum in 2002, that the Irish government is ignoring the democratic wishes of the people by holding a second referendum. There are a few points to address on this. The first is that on any occasion, a vote still needs to be carried by over 50% of the people and we have as much right to vote No on this occasion as we did last year.
This is also not unprecedented. We voted twice on the Fianna Fáil proposal to introduce first-past-the-post voting, in 1959 and 1968, when it was twice rejected. We voted twice on the legalisation of divorce, in 1986 and 1995, when it was approved the second time. We voted twice on the proposal to limit the right to abortion granted by the Supreme Court in the X Case, in 1992 and 2001, twice rejected. (Two referendums seem to be some sort of natural limit).
It is true that on these occasions, there was a considerable passage of time between referendums, but that was without external circumstances of the Treaty being approved by nearly every other country within the past year, and the electorates from one decade to another still contain a considerable overlap.
Some have made something of the fact that had we voted in favour of Lisbon last year, we would not be asked to vote again to be sure we didn’t want a No. This is a spurious argument. A Yes vote would have demonstrated that a majority of the voting electorate found it on the whole worthy of approval. The No vote was for a myriad of reasons, which being addressed, it makes sense to ask if this is enough.
From which follows the point that it is entirely misleading to claim that this is the same proposal being put before the people. This was also the case after the defeat at the first Nice referendum, when it was put to the people again with a constitutional provision respecting our non-aligned military tradition. After last year’s defeat, the government met the other EU leaders and secured guarantees on practically every issue raised by opponents of last year’s referendum. These included a significant agreement that the size of the Commission would not be reduced, as well as assurances that nothing in the Lisbon Treaty and the processes of the EU in general would affect Irish policy on abortion, taxation, education and militarization and a solemn on workers’ rights and social policy. These agreements had the status of a separate international treaty between the twenty-seven member states.
While it would not be inappropriate for the government to call a second referendum again, particularly under changed economic circumstances, as long as it believed it to be in the best interests of the country, it is disingenuous for opponents of the Treaty to object to a repeated referendum, having raised these various objections last year, and in doing so, they are seeking to eat their cake and have it too.
There is a precedent for this with European Treaties, not just the case of Ireland with Nice, but also Denmark with Maastricht. They voted No in June 1992, and after securing a series of opt-outs, they voted Yes in May 1993. It is far closer to the point to see these examples as part of the overall process of ratification. On each of these occasions, the European governments sought to address the principle concerns, and to ask whether with modification and special provisions, the treaties were satisfactory.
The Irish people spoke clearly last June and the European governments listened. They saw the issues of concern, and agreed to guarantees, outlined above. This is not a case of the government simply asking us if we’ve changed our mind. They are asking if they have done enough to address the concerns raised last year. So please let’s hear less of the fatuous claim that a vote of the people is undemocratic, from those who would look for any excuse to speak against the Treaty.