BBC BLOGS - Gavin Hewitt's Europe
« Previous | Main | Next »

Lisbon fiercely debated

Gavin Hewitt | 10:48 UK time, Friday, 25 September 2009

A No to Lisbon campaign poster on a Dublin busDublin: In Ireland, the vote on the Lisbon Treaty has turned into a full-blown political scrap. I sat in on The Last Word, a live radio debate held in the Irish Times building in front of an audience of 70. It was at times passionate, irritating, humorous but, above all, everyone there felt this treaty mattered to the future of Ireland. It was the kind of debate Britain has not had.

The heavy hitters were Michael O'Leary, the feisty boss of Ryanair who supports the treaty, despite his fairly low opinion of Brussels in the past, and Declan Ganley, a businessman who spearheaded the "No" campaign the last time Ireland voted.

The debate had to be briefly delayed for O'Leary's arrival. "He only runs an airline," a voice said. He is a natural salesman, timing arrival for maximum attention. Having shaken as many hands as he could he propped a book with the title 100 reasons to vote 'Yes' to Lisbon 2 against his microphone. He likes humorous one-liners and enjoys politically knifing his opponents, who he reminded the audience were "losers" and who "hadn't created any jobs".

For O'Leary the reason for supporting the treaty is all about the economy. He started off by saying "we now have a bankrupt country". In his view, the vote was "about getting 500,000 people back to work". He said it was important that under the treaty Ireland would keep a commissioner and that it would keep control over direct taxation. With those guarantees he said that "if you care about jobs vote 'Yes'." Then a hint of the reprisals that might flow from Brussels if Ireland voted "No". "Europe," he said, had "a long memory".

Time and again the "No" side denied that this was a vote about jobs and the economy. They know that it is their opponents' strongest card. Declan Ganley wanted to fight on entirely different ground. The fact that Ireland was voting again on essentially the same treaty showed the "contempt that democracy was held in," he said. The treaty, he said, would "trump Irish laws" and "halve our voting weight". It would create an unelected president. In the future the treaty could be changed without a democratic vote.

Time and again the "Yes" side returned to the economy. The Foreign Minister, Micheal Martin, said Americans and other potential investors would interpret a "No" vote as Ireland pulling away from Europe. Companies might not invest. "Which ones?" shouted Ganley - but there was no response. The foreign minister continued by saying that Ireland had marketed itself as the "gateway to Europe". That could now be lost. The "No" side retorted that no companies had turned away from Ireland after the first "No" vote. They insisted that you could reject the Lisbon Treaty and be good Europeans.

The angriest exchange followed Declan Ganley's assertion that this was "the same anti-democratic formula" drawn up by a "European elite". It stung the foreign minister. He angrily denied that there was an elite running Europe. They are elected politicians, he insisted. These were the same people who had lent Ireland 120 billion euros. "They're interested in helping us," he said.

And so it came down to this. The "No" side believe there is something profoundly undemocratic about having to vote a second time on essentially the same treaty and that power is seeping away to institutions in Brussels. The "Yes" side believes Ireland needs Europe to rebuild its economy and it would be a great mistake to alienate the big European players when Ireland is weak. And that is the argument that may well influence the voters. Jobs over fears about sovereignty.


or register to comment.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.