Ireland: The people have spoken

June 21, 2008

It started out as a good day for justice and rapidly became a good day for democracy too.

Just as the members of the US Supreme Court were restoring the human rights of prisoners of the United States held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Irish people were voting to deliver a resounding rejection to the Lisbon treaty in a referendum which would have transferred sovereign powers to the European Union. A veritable double whammy was delivered to the global neoliberal project on June 12.

The 1937 Irish constitution, itself written largely as a bulwark against communism, has turned out to be the preeminent democratic contract in existence in Europe, for alone among Europeans, the Irish people were afforded the right to vote on the Lisbon treaty by virtue of their national constitution — a democratic privilege not afforded to the former
imperial powers or the former communist nations who make up the bulk of the EU.

Lisbon was a treaty with long-term effects on the nature of European political integration. The Irish people voted along class lines, with the urban working class, farmers and fisherpeople uniting to expose the democratic deficit at the heart of the "European project".

Three million Irish voters were allowed to determine the future of a Europe of 493 million because each of the other 26 national governments knew that their populations would have rejected the treaty in a referendum.

The referendum to determine accession to the Lisbon treaty and then promptly dismissed the idea. British PM Gordon Brown was too embarrassed to even show up for the signing and sent a deputy in his place.

The French and Dutch had previously rejected the predecessor of the Lisbon treaty, the draft EU constitution, and their governing elites resolved not to ask the people ever again, just to sign a renamed treaty without reference to their electorates.

Again it was an alliance of urban workers and rural populations who came together to outflank the elites in those countries who had done well under the neoliberal policies of the EU.

Many different reasons were given for the 53% to 47% rejection, from concern at the militarisation of the EU to the possibility of legalised abortion being imposed to a rejection of the privatisation of public services such as hospitals, education and water.

Recent decisions of the European Courts that upheld the rights of corporations at the expense of workers were also clearly an issue and raised the prospect of matters not specifically included in the treaty being added by decision of some equally remote European court.

All these matters share an underlying concern that the democratic rights currently enjoyed by Irish people were to be given away to less democratic institutions. Irish people have a relationship with their public representatives that is at once close and at the same time distrustful. They also have an innate understanding of the nature of imperialism and want no part of it.

Had the treaty been passed, it would have been the first time in human history that a constitution was imposed on a population that had not first been subjugated on the battlefield. The proponents of the neoliberal project have but a passing familiarity with the concept of democracy and only refer to it as tool to be manipulated when all else fails.

Irish democracy was up to the challenge.

Until the EU addresses the democratic deficit, the peoples of Europe will continue to resist the transference of power to the centre. The EU is the only political entity left on Earth where the highest legislative institution sits in secret session and does not even publish transcripts of its deliberations.

Those days are over. The people want democracy. The people have spoken.

[Simon McGuinness is the Coordinator of Cuba Support Group Ireland,]

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