2 March 2012 No Comments by The Northern Standard

No Leap Year matrimonial proposal will have been embarked upon as nervously this week as the leap of faith the Government has been compelled to make in the people of the country from whom they are to seek endorsement of the European Fiscal Stability Pact by referendum in a number of months.
The instinctive reluctance many will feel at having to trudge to the polls to make another determination on a Europe-related matter, after enduring another tug-of-war campaign between Yes and No advocates that could well obfuscate rather than clarify the issues, has been presaged by the obvious, and understandable, reluctance of the Government itself to go down the referendum route – a step dictated ultimately by the legal advices of the Attorney-General rather than a principled regard for the people’s right to a deciding say on an issue having a determining influence on many aspects of their everyday lives.
If both the suitor and the wooed may be ambivalent about having the proposal placed on the table, the proposal itself is undoubtedly a very important one, and the referendum justifies to some degree the description of momentousness it is already earning in some political and media quarters.
Detailed analysis of the issues must at this point remain somewhat tentative given that the exact wording of the question to be put to the people – as well as the date on which the answer has to be given – remains undecided.
What we do know is that we will be asked to indicate our acceptance or disapproval of the complex mechanism to which the Government is willing to further commit itself to as the means of alleviating the severe economic difficulties we are experiencing.
Few households will have avoided acquaintance with the ascetic denials that this commitment has already entailed, and the number experiencing them with anything other than a reluctant tolerance will be equally sparse.
This referendum prompts us, however, to give some dispassionate thought to the rationale behind the austerity programme – to evaluate the big picture and determine to our own satisfaction whether the elements of the European strategy, such as the need for countries to restrict borrowing and avoid accumulating debilitating budget deficits – commendable in themselves but creating severe hardships in their implementation – are unavoidable measures worth the personal pain for the sake of future collective gain.
We must also decide whether the new European stability mechanism we are signing up to, which elaborates upon the availability to crisis countries of access to bail-out funding under conditions of compulsion that have significant implications for national sovereignty, constitutes the best address of our problems.
To do this properly, we also need to be able to evaluate with objectivity the alternatives to these approaches that have been advocated by those who believe that there is an equally viable but less austere course available to the country than the one that the Government has chosen to navigate.
If the pending campaign affords the people the courtesy of making a determination on the issues in a fully informed manner, the referendum will indeed be a highly significant one for this country’s present and future – leading ideally to a decisive margin of outcome, one that either gives the Government a strong moral mandate to continue in its adherence to the Europe-dictated solution, or an equally forceful direction to extricate itself from the future commitments being required of it by Europe.
But such a clear-cut result behoves an approach to the referendum campaign by both advocates and opponents that foregrounds information ahead of invective, that treats the intelligence of the voters with respect and relies upon the finesse of persuasion rather than the cudgel of coercion.
Although recent precedent does not inspire optimism, one hopes that the tone of the campaigning is restrained and mutually respectful.
The Government, having seen one of the referenda held to coincide with the presidential election campaign lost primarily because of the very lacklustre job it made of explaining the issue in question to the public, must make a much better job on this occasion of getting the factual message across.
To this end it is welcome that this will be a stand-alone referendum with only the European issue to be determined – it will not thankfully be coupled with the referendum on children’s rights which will also take place this year and will be equally deserving of full and informed consideration by the electorate when the time arrives.
It is easy to chide the Government for nervousness about taking the referendum step – but is a fact of political reality that all national voting opportunities that arise between one General Election and another form to some degree a whipping post for the parties in power, and there will be a heavier toll than customary in credibility both at home and abroad should this exercise end in defeat for Fine Gael and Labour.
There will be a natural inclination among many voters, one that elements of those opposed to the referendum proposal will not be slow to encourage, to make this a poll on issues such as the household and septic tanks charges, or a chance to chastise the Government for the range of cuts it has imposed.
While it is not strictly true to say that the referendum does not concern these issues – they are all manifestations of austerity or revenue-generating measures that arise to some degree from the arrangements of which the Stability Pact is part – it would be wrong for people to vote in knee-jerk fashion ‘agin’ the Government without making a sound evaluation of the wider questions that lie at the heart of what they are being asked to determine.
It is also important to consider that rejection of the proposal will not constitute a veto of the pact with Europe as it stands – the effect of a No vote would not, for example, have implications for the existing bail-out availed of by the Government and all that has come with it, but would mean that Ireland would not be able to avail of the new procedures for protecting economic stability that have been agreed in Europe were a second bail-out to be required in the future.
But what the referendum is and is not concerned with will hopefully become patently clear in the months ahead.
Campaigns that attempt on the one hand to play on fears of direful consequences should we not do as the Government wishes, and on the other attempt to goad us into fighting back against the big bully of Europe, will not serve much purpose.
Although we are a bit battered at the present time, we are neither a fearful nor a browbeaten people, and with the proper information at our disposal we will arrive at the collective decision that expresses our wishes for the future best.
All the Irish people want from the forthcoming referendum campaign are the plain facts and unemotive arguments that will help us reach that decision – and after we vote, the right to have the decision we take respected.

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