16 Jun 2008

The Yes campaigners went on the various radio referendum aftermath shows to explain to us why we voted no. Apparently, we were looking for further concessions, but with tax harmonisation already conceded, neutrality guaranteed and euthanasia dead what more could we possibly ask for?

One aspect of their analysis might have been interesting had it been teased out. As with Nice One, the referendum results showed there was a South-County-Dublin -v- the-rest-of-the-country divide. Much as it made the South Dublin pundits politely squirm to point it out, the fact remained that people from their area were a more affluent bunch and this somehow automatically made them both more informed and politically sophisticated (the implication being that people in other parts of the country were, well… whatever). 

For obvious reasons, I can’t see too many politicians in the coming weeks being drawn into this tricky line of enquiry. This is a pity because, looking past the superficial haves/have-nots comparison which commentators raise before they recognise the trap they’ve set for themselves and scurry back to tax harmonisation, it’s actually a phenomenon worth looking at.

Different though they are from each other, rural Irish communities share with those in inner city areas a similar sense of national identity. This sensibility is informed by the now very feint embers of a long dormant patriotism. Rural Irelanders, even very young ones, have a passionate relationship with the land which is in some way tangled up the memory of those who fought to win over its control. And in the middle class housing estates of M50 Dublin, despite the trappings of new wealth, the Connolly/Larkin strand of Irish nationalism still has echoes in day to day social interaction. This connection with our patriotic past isn’t strong enough to prompt wholesale support for Sinn Fein come election day but it does, for example, explain the importance to the fabric of Irish society of the GAA.

The sense of identity shared by rural Ireland as well as ‘traditional’ areas of urban Ireland is an Irishness which exists ‘in itself’: it exists whether or not the EU continues to exist.

That’s not to say that the people of South Dublin lack a sense of national identity. There is a very potent sense of Irishness on the wing south of the capital which, I think, is founded on a pride in Ireland’s successes and achievements as well as its ability to punch above its weight in the arts, business and popular culture. It’s a ‘Six Nations Nationalism’, a local cosmopolitanism which transcends our historical struggles and which is, for example, blind to the North South Border. However, it is a type of national identity which can only be fully understood if Ireland is seen in the context of the existence of other countries – in other words, it’s a relative form of identity which cannot be said to fully exist ‘in itself’. Its strength lies in how competitive it is.

When your sense of national identity springs from this ‘Ireland in context’ world view, a treaty which reflects and formalises this pre-existing context is easy to accept in principal. Whether you agree with such a Treaty or not becomes a question of detail: are Irish economic and social interests sufficiently protected? and so on.

However, if your sense of Irishness is something that can exist in itself – the GAA Irishness  – the necessity to pursue such an agreement is neither obvious nor compelling.

Previous Treaties could engage ‘GAA Irishness’ by focussing on the tangible benefits of voting yes – the introduction of the Euro, the removal of trade barriers, etc. Unfortunately for Lisbon, it had nothing to distract the voter from the fact that, at its core, it dealt exclusively with Ireland's relationship to other countries. GAA Irishness doesn’t need international 'relationships'. Neighbourliness will do. Viewed this way, the Lisbon Treaty was incomprehensible not because the issues were complex but because, for a large percentage of the population, it simply didn't ring true.

This analysis may be wrong, but this kind of discussion is necessary. The No voters won the referendum. The entire Government are Yes voters. If they are serious about moving this thing forward, they have to stop explaining away the No vote on Yes vote terms but rather try to understand the fundamental reasons why the No mentality prevailed against such overwhelming odds.

Monday, June 16, 2008 12:02:01 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Interesting insight Garry and more illuminating than a simple 'class-warfare' argument. I had never looked at the divide from that perspective. Over a banquet of humble pie, government and major actors now have to consider how to communicate the modern-day concept of 'Europe' to the unconvinced and happily independent-minded majority in 'l'Irlande profonde' who are probably best reached from some sort of more grassroots approach. This includes somehow loosening the shackles of centralisation (and I don't mean the current 'decentralisation' model as a solution); allowing the population the full benefits of EU membership (such as removing VRT); and giving the EU credit where it's due for it's achievements rather than scapegoating a conveniently faceless bogeyman in Brussels for stealth taxes.

Monday, June 16, 2008 1:05:39 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Ronan, I think the key word you used there is 'communicate' - its something we don't really do in this country. In the pubilc debate we're certainly rhetorical and we can be interesting, but communicative? Not so sure.
And I think you're on to something by making the connection between 'communication' and 'decentralization'. Were responsibility to be placed on local communities to act in their own interests, the public debate in this country would change radically.
Monday, June 16, 2008 6:07:00 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Yeah, our engagement with the EU is a fairly closed shop. I know because I'm on the periphery trying to make sense of it. We don't seem to consult beyond an expert inner circle never mind the wider public as to what they want to get out of it (if anything). By the way "money" isn't a good enough response but even that is still possible for those who have a mind to pursue it.
The Nice Treaty reversal didn't teach the government. All they did was get the Forum on Europe roasdshow to slumber its way across the country seemingly discussing dry topics. There needs to be another approach - maybe at local authority level. Did you know that each LA has a sort of designated EU officer but in many cases it's an ill-defined fraction of a position that just gets in the way of ‘real’ work? Considering the corpus of legislation in (say) environmental matters that LAs have to deal with, that lack of capacity means that a lot of experience, expertise and valuable input is going to waste while the EU possibly goes in the wrong direction legislatively (perhaps by simply having too much red tape). Plus a lot of potential public interaction and communication is just not happening.
The flip side of that coin is that the EU supposedly prizes 'subsidiarity'...the taking of decisions at the most appropriate level and closest to the citizen as possible. Our government seems to have entirely side-stepped that provision (though it may well have been “recognised” somewhere in Lisbon if I recall).
We should also have a better standard of representative in Europe to convey our views and to feed back into the process. It shouldn’t be either a retirement home for codgers or a reward for fair-fellas-well-met. I actually don't have a problem with the MEPs generally as they are elected but I’d suggest that the local counsellors the Minister for the Environment mysteriously nominates (criteria unclear) to send to the Committee of the Regions should have demonstrated a prior ability to be up to the job by having a thorough (better than the Tanaiste God help us!) understanding of what Europe is/should be and where they can fit in in order to do us proud. These are prime roles and responsibilities in the EU decision-making machine which should be aspired to by the very best and brightest politicos we have at local level - ideally elected mayors when they come on stream who can truly “speak” for their counties and regions. The same should also apply at a much higher level to the Commissioner's role (though to "speak" for the EU as a whole on the given policy).
A much improved teaching policy on EU languages (including Polish!) - and not just for politicians but it’s embarrassing how mono-lingual our lot seem to be - would do no harm either. In fact it would surely yield dividends across the economy within 15 years.
Monday, June 16, 2008 6:34:45 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Great comment, Ronan, plenty to think about. Thanks for takiing the time.
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