REFERENDUM REFLECTIONS

8 June 2012 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The aftermath of the passing of the fiscal treaty referendum feels just as muted and ambiguous as its prelude.
Unlike the outcome of election contests, referenda polls do not usually bequeath a sense of significant shift in the national or local landscape when the votes are finally counted – the determination of the nation’s decision on this particular issue, perhaps more than most of the constitutional and European questions we have been called on to respond to in recent years, certainly leaves on great impressions of triumph or tragedy in its wake.
That a significant majority of those who deigned to vote in the referendum voted Yes will confer as much relief as satisfaction upon the Government parties and the other proponents of this viewpoint.
Whether the result strengthens the negotiating hand of Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his relevant Ministers in their efforts to broker a more favourable deal on Irish bank debt with German chancellor Angela Merkel and the other political power brokers of Europe remains to be seen.
The Yes vote was undoubtedly important in preventing a further slide in the stability of the shaky euro in the currency markets, but it would be naïve to presume that this will translate into persuasive capital that Ireland can exploit to alleviate the burden of its indebtedness.
Although Dr Merkel smiled upon the decision, her Rushmore visage has not softened sufficiently to suggest that the technical and ideological obstacles impeding a significant debt reduction concession will instantly fall away.
The Government have some intricate negotiating to perform, and must do it under an accentuated domestic expectation from Yes voters who reposed trust in their advices despite the adverse circumstances austerity has created, and a certain vengeful vigilance from the No side who will insist upon Fine Gael and Labour now proving there was substance to the arguments they used during the referendum campaign.
In their endeavours to this end in what will be difficult weeks and months ahead in the Byzantine corridors of Brussels, the Government must be wished well.
A great deal depends on how effectively Ireland’s voice is heard in the discussions that will take place later this month on the evolution of a growth measures strategy for Europe. The future of the euro could depend on the outcome – the prospects of this country seeing some light at the end of the yawning austerity tunnel will certainly rest on the powers of persuasion and conciliation that are exercised by our legates at the European court.
On a more pragmatic political level, the future electoral prospects of Fine Gael and Labour are also in the balance.
Both parties would have entered Coalition knowing that remedial measures would have to be taken to correct the economy that would be unparalleled not only in terms of rectitude but also in unpopularity.
Despite the arduous task facing them, they will surely have plotted out a term of office which, near to its conclusion and the prospect of going before the people in another General Election, would shift from the penal emphasis that frontloaded it, and allow scope in its concluding years for the alleviation of the burden of taxation and cuts so as to foster at least tentative shoots of stimulus and solid indications of jobs growth and economic recovery.
The time is fast approaching when, to ensure their future political prosperity, the Government partners will have to show us that some improvement in our own personal prosperity is close at hand.
This would seem a concern of particular exigency for the Labour Party, which seems, if the runes of the referendum are read correctly, to be acquiring the same sort of guilt by association with unpalatable government decisions that did for those naïve Greens when the country last passed judgement on a national administration.
The fate of Labour is hardly likely to be so apocalyptic as their junior partner predecessors, but they undoubtedly stand to lose substantially at the polls, and have their place as most eligible suitor for Fine Gael supplanted when the next Government is to be formed, if they do not restore some of their credibility as a reliable repository for those with left of centre political leanings.
It is, of course, a chancy business to attempt to draw accurate assessments of the stock of our political parties from the trends discernible in a referendum ballot, when many voters privilege considerations other than party leanings.
More clear-cut, and perhaps more significant for the national political landscape of the future, is the picture of a distinct division in disposition along lines of class and affluence that has emerged from the way the country voted on the fiscal stability treaty.
That the treaty broadly found favour among the rural population, and those urban locations of relative prosperity, while it was rejected by the ‘working class’ or less well off in both town and countryside areas, is perhaps an uncomfortable indicator that Ireland is still a society tiered along class lines.
And what of the 50% of eligible voters who did not participate in the referendum at all? What admixture of apathy, disenchantment and perceived disenfranchisement with our political structures does this impenetrable statistic mask?
We feel the outcome of the referendum poses other interesting questions – is, for example, the system of organised politics in this country as it is at present constituted truly reflective of the relationship and interaction the people ideally wish to have with it?
If the answer to that is no, and the high proportion of non-participants in this referendum suggests a negative rather than a positive response, then one is inveigled to wonder whether a change in the mainstream Irish political landscape, and the emergence of new party identities that better reflect the divisions that evidently demarcate our society, is not an urgent requirement – not least to stem the rise of extremist voices as an influence on the large numbers of Irish people so patently disaffected with the state of affairs as they are now.
The passing of the fiscal treaty referendum has not perceptibly brightened or darkened our immediate futures – but it has assuredly left the people of this country, and those who aspire to lead them, much to reflect upon.

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