by Agustin Ruiz Robledo, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Granada (Spain) and Visiting Scholar at the UCD School of Law 2011-12
The pace of politics and life in the twenty-first century is so fast that the referendum of May 31 seems to have been held a year ago and is no longer an issue worth talking about. However, much the same happens in cycling races, the fact of winning a stage does not mean that there are no consequences for the overall result, quite the contrary. Therefore, it is worth reflecting on what happened and its consequences. Here are those which I, a foreigner passionate about Ireland, find most relevant.
1. The referendum means that Ireland is moving away from representative democracy, the Westminster model, under which the people delegate all power to Parliament. If the 1937 Constitution was based on that model, the judicial interpretation arising from the Crotty case in 1986 and its acceptance by the political class has transformed Ireland into a participatory democracy closer to that of Switzerland or some U.S. states like California, with frequent referendums on various topics. It is thus distinct from the other 26 States of the European Union since while it was the only state where citizens endorsed the Lisbon Treaty, now again it is the only one where they have endorsed the Stability Treaty. And it has done so despite the legal reasons that made the consultation unnecessary, as my friend and colleague Gavin Barrett argued at the time. Political logic was imposed on legal logic: there is no government that can resist social and political pressure for a referendum on the Stability Treaty when a few months before, -in October 2011 – referendums were held on relatively secondary issues such as strengthening the powers of parliamentary committees of inquiry and cutting judges’ salaries.
2. The Government and its allies tackled the referendum campaign in favour of the “yes” vote by arguing that it was best for Ireland. The ratification of the treaty was essential for the country to continue enjoying support from Europe, especially since the new European Stability Mechanism would have 700,000 million euros to distribute. The opposition responded to what they considered to be an argument of fear by saying that truly defending Irish interests was voting “no” because “austerity does not work”. In addition, they argued on political principles: the treaty limits Ireland’s sovereignty to prevent a future government spending more if it saw fit. Although they did not say it, those in favour of the ‘yes’ vote were felt to tacitly accept this argument, to the point that The Irish Independent called for it saying it was better to vote with your head rather than your heart. Enda Kenny himself after the favorable vote of 60% of voters thanked the “pragmatism” of the Irish, denying that his campaign was a campaign of fear, as the other side had claimed.
In my opinion, – possibly biased by my limited knowledge of Irish society, – as well as practical reasons, there were a couple of theoretical reasons, the defense of political principles, which could have been put forward for the Stability Treaty. The first is that strengthening the powers of the central institutions of the Union is collectively to provide ourselves with better tools to combat the crisis. So if nobody would ever think of tying the hands of the captain of a ship in a storm on the grounds that to do so respects the right of passengers to go anywhere they want, equally it is not right that attributing more power to the EU curtails the powers of Ireland. Even more so when you consider that at the present time European financial power lies not so much in common institutions as in Germany.
Moreover, the idea that a loss of sovereignty means that a future Irish government cannot increase the deficit is as true as arguing that the government cannot have more than fifteen members threatens that sovereignty (Article 28 of the Constitution), the Dáil Éireann cannot establish the death penalty (Article 15), that the President should live in Dublin (Art. 12) and many other constitutional rules that limit the powers of state institutions. The limitation that the deficit shall not exceed 0.5% of GDP does not mean that the government that wants to cannot spend more, but rather that it cannot do so by the undemocratic process of issuing public debt, which transfers the economic costs of decisions made now to future generations. What is correct democratically is to raise taxes, so that citizens who have chosen to support that government spending pay the cost.
3. All political polls conducted this year have shown a steady rise of Sinn Féin, from 6.9% in the 2007 elections to 24% in the surveys in May 2012, second only to the 32% of Fine Gael. In my opinion, the referendum has helped its popularity because it has presented itself as a party of strong principles, beginning with the appeal to the people to decide on the ratification of the Treaty. Since at the same time, it has avoided the radicalism of the ULA it has succeeded in projecting an image of being the real opposition party, without becoming an anti-system party, thus erasing the old image of the political arm of IRA. The big loser is the Labour Party, whose support has dropped from 19% in the 2011 elections to 10% today. To counter this trend, Eamon Gilomore has launched a proposal to encourage growth, seeking to differentiate it from Fine Gael. It is not easy to prevent disgruntled voters going en masse to Sinn Fein not only because it has to fight against the tragic fate of second parties in a coalition, but because it faces the charismatic Gerry Adams, who with Benedictine constancy is leading the formerly marginal party, which supported terrorism and was obsessed with the unity of Ireland, to be the dominant party of the moderate left. Adams also has in his hand a powerful tool to further advance Sinn Féin: resign at the right time to make way for a new generation of leaders completely unconnected with a violent past.