Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fear And Loathing In Lisbon

It's been a while since I've written anything of length on this blog. I've been thinking about the Lisbon referendum again lately, because for me it coalesces a number of thoughts I have had about politics and how information is communicated.

For anyone not reading this in Ireland, we had a referendum earlier this year to decide whether we as a state wished to sign up to the particulars of the Lisbon Treaty. Without getting into the for and against arguments, the treaty aims to further cement the EU as a federal body, makes the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights legally binding within member states and generally speaking brings each country closer to singing from the same hymn sheet. As you can imagine, there are those who think this is a good thing, citing the value of cooperation and that in a world with immense superpowers like the US, China and Russia, the whole of Europe is greater than its component parts. On the other hand, there are those who see more than a shadow of the totalitarian state, or less hysterically, a gradual transferral of individual power (& hence, liberty) to a central organisation. Effectively, it's the big tent approach versus the small government (or libertarian) thesis.

The reason we are having these referendums at all (not every country in the EU does) stems from Crotty versus An Taoiseach in 1987. This resulted in a supreme court ruling that forces the government to ask permission for any significant change to Ireland/EEC (EU as was) treaties, since such alterations would be in effect amendments to the Constitution, that wily document crafted by Dev while the rest of the world was looking west at the National Socialists in 1937. With me so far? If you've ever been to a parent-teacher meeting, a union meeting, or any get together that invites a mass discussion, you may already expect what happens in such cases. Any issue, no matter how general, becomes deconstructed in an ever-expanding sea of minutiae, like cells in a petri dish. So for the 'No' camp, the Lisbon referendum can be about any number of tangential objections that exist on placards, cheerfully removed from context. Signing up means reduced power, increased military presence, abortion, divorce, immigrants, the death knell for Irish farming. Here's Libertas's current poster:

Look at the language of the poster. "Irish Democracy 1916-2009? Vote No!"; the sun, disappearing into dark clouds that rise up from the bottom of the picture; in the foreground an authentic-looking Irish child with startling green eyes and (of course) red hair. This is designed to do two things at once: stir a patriotic sense of pride for the mother country, and to be a call to action, invoking, with 1916, the be-pedestaled martyrs for freedom, and connecting a vote against this treaty as a continuation of those earlier actions.

How about the 'yes' vote? In Ireland, it is supported by all the major political parties. This doesn't necessarily mean automatic success. It was the same in the previous referendum and it didn't end well there either. The yes camp has two problems that don't trouble the no campaigners. First, most people don't really understand what the treaty is or what it implies. Whether because the treaty itself is a typically arcane legal document, or that our media has failed to communicate the gist of it effectively, most people have wildly differing ideas of what it means. So you have a situation where the truth belongs to he who shouts loudest. Last time it was Libertas and Sinn Fein. This time, more sinister groups such as Coir have added their voice.

Second, the yes campaigners suffer from being the captains of the Titanic. Ireland, though we style ourselves irreverent and rejoice in the narrative of the Rising and nationalism (700 years and all that) is, more so than Britain, a nation of shopkeepers.
We more or less invented the idea of ourselves as Celtic firebrands. Our national sports and dance are largely a construct of the Gaelic League, a movement that took inspiration from the Belle Époque in France, in an attempt to radicalise a population that was not nearly as desperate to leave the United Kingdom as later thinkers would have it. Our political parties all sit on more or less the same fence, right in the middle, leaning right or left as the wind blows. So we can have a centre right party that has been in power uninterrupted (barring a three-year gap) since 1989. This party can go into coalitions with other political persuasions with barely a shift in the direction of the ship - in fact, most coalition partners emerge very much the worse for the experience, while Fianna Fail sails on into another glorious sunset. We like stability. For years one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in Europe, we prefer today to be as yesterday and tomorrow to be more of the same.

The problem for the government is that the weather forecasts are gloomier day by day. Allegations of cronyism and corruption were dismissed in years past, since everything was going well, but not anymore. Suddenly the years of being in power are not indications of trustworthiness and reliability, but Exhibit A in the trial of the driver who was asleep at the wheel. The current strategy for rescuing Ireland from the recession, being a variant on 'rob the poor to feed the rich' as far as many people are concerned, contributes to a confidence meltdown when it comes to trusting their advice on the election. Even the opposition parties who are for the election have similar problems.

So how do they convince us? They can't scare us, although there is the odd half-hearted effort:

As it is, support for the yes camp appears to be (tentatively) the majority view. In the light of their failure in the local elections, which is likely to have been the largest shift in Irish voter loyalties for some time to come, Libertas and Sinn Fein may have to resign themselves to being the lone voice at the dinner party, or the crank at the bar. They can win, sometimes, on specific issues and they can count on a certain bed of support (as can any party), but mass support thus far eludes them, because for better or worse, we are not a country of ideologies, but a collection of stories, some true, some almost true, but always - always - regular and timetabled.

It'll be interesting to see how it goes this Friday. By all means comment and tell me how wrong I am about any of this. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this video, which you may find instructive, given the eleventh commandment: Thou Shall Not Question Stephen Fry.

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Welcome to my blog. I'm a freelance writer/journalist/researcher/editor. I write about education and ideas I've had for the Irish Times. I also research, write and edit for writers, publications and websites. Here I put things that tend not to fit anywhere else. Enjoy.

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