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Listening to dissenters is key to passing the Lisbon Treaty

In The Brussels Times on February 20, 2009 at 2:06 PM

The [Irish] Government and the opposition parties presumably aren’t stupid enough to think they can bank on those polls showing that a healthy majority of voters now supports the Lisbon Treaty.

Last time out the polls also predicted a big win for the pro-Lisbon side, but once the referendum campaign began, everything changed. It often does when referenda take place in this country. The establishment view, that is the one favoured by our political class and the media, usually starts off way ahead in a campaign and is then reined in as the public begins to hear an opposing point of view for the first time.

Since the Lisbon Treaty referendum of last summer, voters have been subjected to intense pro-Lisbon propaganda. It has been unrelenting and the tactic has been three-fold. First, every effort has been made to demonise Declan Ganley and Libertas. We haven’t seen anything like it in years with RTE and The Irish Times in the role of witch-hunters.

The second leg of the strategy has been to try and limit opportunities for opposing voices to be heard. For example, the Oireachtas has been working hard to find a way to neutralise the requirement that broadcasters give both sides in a referendum campaign equal access to the airwaves.

Thirdly, the political class is trying to turn the upcoming referendum into a debate about membership of the European Union rather than about the merit or demerits of the Lisbon Treaty [or EU Constitution] itself. To this end, they are telling us that the only thing standing between us and certain economic doom is our membership of the European Union.

But this is a red herring because hardly anyone in Ireland wants to leave the European Union. We know that membership has been a net plus for us and therefore it would be extremely unwise for the political parties to think they can rely on this argument. All they will do is play into the hands of their opponents who will point out that what is at issue is not our membership of the EU per se, but the kind of union we wish to be in.

One reason Lisbon was lost first time around is because of the echo-chamber effect that is so strong in Irish politics; namely, the tendency of our political lords and masters to listen only to the same voices to the point where they think no other voices exist, or where they know they exist, but treat them with contempt.

For one thing, this echo-chamber is partly to blame for our present economic woes. Dissident economists simply weren’t listened to when they warned that the property bubble was about to burst with untold consequences.

On a more minor scale, we have the spectacle of the Oireachtas committee investigating the issue of children’s rights, which is chaired by Mary O’Rourke, hearing evidence only from people on one side of the political spectrum.

If Mary continues in this fashion, she’ll wonder why she has lost — if and when a poorly thought out children’s rights amendment is put to us.

When the Lisbon Treaty was defeated last year, a narrow crack appeared in the echo-chamber and the political class began to hear alternative voices for the first time in an age, even though they had been there all the time.

One set of voices had very legitimate concerns about EU interference in such areas as family law and education. The EU has now promised to address those concerns by way of legal guarantees.

But there is now a real danger that both the EU and the Government will believe the latest opinion polls and think Lisbon II is a foregone conclusion and therefore will offer us meaningless guarantees.

In fact, Eamon Gilmore is resisting attempts to address those concerns regarding family law and education. Why so? Is he admitting that such interference by the EU is real and he wants it to continue?

Is this why he fears the guarantees? If so, then we doubly need them.

The best and only way to pass Lisbon is to continue listening to the voices of those who voted ‘No’ last time, and who, with a few meaningful guarantees concerning sovereignty, can be persuaded to vote ‘Yes’ next time.

If the political system wants to pass Lisbon II, it needs to ignore the opinion polls, smash that echo-chamber to pieces and heed voices other than their own.

This article by David Quinn was originally published in the Irish Independent of February 20th, 2009.

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