The Irish Referendum: Fear Prevails

by | 11 Jun 2012

The result of the referendum on the Fiscal Treaty that took place yesterday in Ireland was a Yes in favour of the constitutional change that allows the neoliberal measures contained in the Treaty to implemented. There was a very low level of participation: around 50% of the electorate, and it can therefore be said that the change to the constitution has been approved with the support of only a quarter of the population.

Although many had hoped for the Irish citizens to vote against the Treaty, which would have meant a rejection of the austerity policies imposed in recent years, a campaign based on fear, threats and blackmail carried out by the Yes side was enough to prevent such a rejection from taking place….

The Yes campaign, with the government, the bosses’ confederation, other important business groups such as the American Chamber of Commerce, some unions and the entirety of the country’s media establishment, resorted to an iron discourse of fear to ensure a Yes. As with previous referendums on the European Union in Ireland, a vote against was presented as a vote that would destroy the country. Blackmail can be easily recognised, but that in itself does not make it any less effective.

What has been achieved with this result is a change to the Irish constitution to ensure the implementation of the neoliberal measures agreed in the Treaty. That is, the constitution will be changed so that no one can appeal to other rights specified within it whenever legislation is introduced and cuts are carried out in order to meet the conditions of the Treaty.

What at other moments would have been resoundingly rejected as anti-democratic and crazy from an economic point of view can now be put forth as a reasonable, sensible option. The Yes benefitted from the support of numerous prominent economists, who, far more than in other countries, appear in the media as if they were sages, unpolluted by any political ideology- a symptom of the widespread domination of politics by the logic of the market. Despite the obvious failure of the Celtic Tiger, the hegemonic discourse in Ireland has continued to be that of free markets, low taxes and scarce social and labour protections.

In the same way that financial, economic and political elites from the European Union have used Greece as an example of what happens when a people decide to oppose neoliberal prescriptions, Ireland has been presented as the exemplary pupil. The obedience of the Irish government to the demands of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission, and the apparent lack of resistance on the part of the citizens, are held up as the ideal way of confronting the crisis.

The same fairy tale of the exemplary Irish pupil is also broadcast with tiresome frequency in Ireland by the political and media establishments, as a way of disciplining and isolating the population: there has never been so much interest in the Greek people from the Irish political class as in the past weeks of the referendum campaign. The recent success of SYRIZA in the Greek elections was presented as a bout of madness on the part of the Greek citizens: the head of a semi-state gas company proclaimed, in a discussion on the main public radio station, that SYRIZA’s leader had a gun pointed at the head of the rest of Europe. In the same way, a No vote was characterised as a Greek-style act of madness.

A No vote was an attack against the stability of jobs, wages, the country and the euro. A key word in the campaign was confidence (that is, submission): one had to vote Yes because if you didn’t, we would lose the confidence of the markets and investors. In the few occasions that the media addressed the possible effect of the treaty on the so-called ‘democratic deficit’ (strangely, one never hears talk of an ‘oligarchic surplus’), it was claimed that a vote in favour of the Fiscal Treaty was nothing more than a small step towards a more stable Europe and that all these important questions about democracy would be resolved in the future.

It was not specified how or when, and the question was never raised about how this might be possible when decisive power over economic policy is being concentrated in the hands of technocratic elites who have not presented themselves for election nor do they have any intention of doing so. All this had to be left for another day, they said, since what was urgent was to confront the immediate problem: public debt and the wasteful spending of irresponsible governments (the fact that it is not a crisis caused by public debt but by private banking debt was also ignored).

In sum, according to the forces in favour of a Yes, the only solution to the neoliberal policies devastating an alarming proportion of the Irish population, is the intensification of neoliberal governance. This position is not just the one held by the main government party Fine Gael (from the same European parliamentary formation as the Partido Popular) but also that of the Labour Party, its coalition partner. The latter, among all the social democratic parties in Europe, is perhaps the one most devoted to neoliberalism, and during the campaign that has just ended, completely abandoned any pretence of representing the interests of the labour movement. This party resorted to a rancid nationalist discourse in its campaigning: its posters showed a resplendent national flag. The places with the highest percentages of No votes -from 75% to 90%- occurred in those working class areas that are suffering the effects of the crisis most heavily. One must point out that neither the majority of immigrants nor the thousands of people recently emigrated as a consequence of the high unemployment levels had the right to vote.

Faced with such powerful forces arrayed in favour of a Yes, the No side, which had received far less funding, found it difficult to manage to convince the population not to be led by fear. The media debate focused continually on the question of how Ireland could achieve funding for a second bailout if it didn’t sign up to the European Stability Mechanism, which, according the Yes side, could only be achieved after approving the Treaty. In large measure then, what has been experienced in recent weeks in Ireland has been an intense campaign based on what Boaventura de Sousa Santos has called the politics of the ongoing bailout. Any consideration as regards democratic rights, equality, or the type of society one wishes to build, is postponed indefinitely, and priority is given to solving the immediate and urgent problem of the funding of public services. “Where are you going to get the money from?” was the most repeated refrain from the Yes campaign in recent weeks.

But even so, the campaign against, headed by smaller left parties, the republican party Sinn Fein, the important movement against the Household Tax, and some unions (but not all), was conducted with optimism, humour and irreverence…

And one can exaggerate the lack of resistance that there has been of late in Ireland. The movement against the Household Tax stands out, as it has achieved a very high level of civil disobedience by managing to get more than half the population to refuse to pay a regressive tax on homes, as a form of protest against the policies of bailing out banks and brutal cuts to salaries, public services and social spending that have been applied in recent years.

This has been achieved despite an extensive campaign of threats and delegitimisation carried out by the government and the press. Other social movements, against fracking, against the activities of Shell in the west of Ireland, against illegitimate debt and against Ireland’s ‘bad bank’, and even movements born out of the ‘occupy effect’ have served to prevent this culture of fear and resignation that is promoted continually from the political and media establishments, from becoming completely normalised. Against a political class that will be emboldened from having gotten its way in the referendum, their resistance is more needed than ever to overcome the culture of fear and suffering that the government will now try to intensify.

From Cunning Hired Knaves


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