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19 June 2008 Edition

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Lisbon Treaty rejection : Interview with Mary Lou McDonald MEP

THE MEDIA: Some were fair, others were not

THE MEDIA: Some were fair, others were not

A moment of democratic truth

IN the aftermath of a resounding ‘No’ vote in the Lisbon Treaty referendum, the Sinn Féin MEP  for Dublin, MARY LOU McDONALD speaks to An Phoblacht’s ELLA O’DWYER  about the result and what Sinn Féin believes should happen now.

What do you think were the main reasons that people voted ‘No’?
The Government wanted to have a very broad brush, general discussion to the effect that Europe is good, Europe is positive. That was all well and good. Sinn Féin made clear Ireland is at the heart of Europe and that’s where we remain. But what the Government didn’t want to do was knuckle down and discuss the actual provisions of the treaty and I think that’s where they came a cropper because, as the debate unfolded, people increasingly wanted to know what was in the actual treaty that they were being asked to sign up to.
It was a poor treaty for Europe overall in terms of key social issues. We all know about what’s called ‘the race to the bottom’, we all know that it’s a reality that affects people not just here but right across the continent. It was a matter of amazement to me that, during the treaty debate, heads of state claimed that on the one hand that it was a matter of concern that we now had an increased membership of 27 states in the EU and how would this bigger union work? But on the other hand it didn’t seem to have occurred to them that the issue of workers’ rights is all the more live and real because of the expanded union when we now have weaker and stronger economies in the Union with the entry of countries like Bulgaria.

How did you feel when you saw the Irish Times opinion poll showing the ‘No’ side ahead?
The poll confirmed what we had been hearing on the ground from talking to people. It became clear that people were unhappy and uneasy and had very deep concerns, particularly around neutrality. On the other hand, I was a bit wary about the poll because something like that would be used to galavanise the ‘Yes’ vote when there really only is one poll in elections and that’s the real one that takes place on polling day.
Commentators were saying a higher turn-out would favour the ‘Yes’ side and those that would be likely to vote ‘No’ would not turn out to vote. But, in fact, on the day,  there was a high turn-out of 53 per cent and it didn’t favour the ‘Yes’ side. We called for a high turn-out because this is such a crucial issue for Ireland. They came out and voted ‘No’. So nobody can argue that the Lisbon Treaty was rejected on any kind of spurious grounds. It was definitively rejected with a high turn-out.

Why do you think the combined forces of Fianna Fáil Fine Gael, the PDs, the Labour Party, ICTU, IBEC and the Green Party leadership could not deliver a ‘Yes’ vote?
Because it was a bad deal – it’s as simple as that.
As a party campaigning for a ‘No’ vote we were outspent by about 20 to 1. Relatively speaking, we were at a disadvantage in terms of funding for posters. The ‘Yes’ campaign had massive resources at their back but they had a very poor argument.
The people are sovereign on these matters. It was a constitutional matter and we had encouraged people to consider the arguments on their merits. People took the issues very seriously. The ‘Yes’ campaigners were weak on their arguments. In fact, in hindsight, I’m not entirely sure what their arguments were.  They used a number of very dubious arguments about efficency or climate change and ran away from where the debate needed to happen – around the issue of a Foreign Minister, a Commissioner and workers’ rights.
Strangely, all of the political parties on the ‘Yes’ side would tell us they have different analyses and perspectives on the major issues affecting Ireland and yet this campaign showed that really there’s much of a muchness between them.

There has been much criticism of the mainstream media, particularly the Irish Times and RTÉ for what was perceived as partisan coverage in favour of the ‘Yes’ camp during the campaign. What are your own feelings on this?
It was very obvious that the media establishment were four square behind the ‘Yes’ campaign, not just in news coverage and opinion pieces but also in the photo journalism. The papers editorialised in favour of the ‘Yes’ campaign and the vast amount of  headlines highlighted the  pro-treaty campaign . The tabloids were about the fairest but the coverage in the  broadsheets and particularly The Irish Times, was very, very skewed.

Since the referendum result, some politicians – Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell comes immediately to mind – have come across as particularly begruding and have tried to put the onus on Sinn Féin to resolve what they see as a mess created for their pet project. Do you believe such figures have genuinely accepted the will of the people?
All of them have said that they respect the will of the people and of course that’s a given as far as we’re concerned. But it’s not just about accepting the outcome; it’s about acting on the outcome.
The people haven’t made a ‘mess’. People expressed their view democratically when they voted the treaty down. The Lisbon Treaty is over and politicians, whoever they are, can react whatever way they want but they need to act on the will of the people.
There’s a big onus on the Taoiseach and the Government as a whole to act on the strong mandate that they now have to ensure that the concerns that were raised in the course of the campaign are addressed.
There can be no question of reheating Lisbon and serving it up again.  The Lisbon Treaty has been rejected. If the Government puts another proposition to the people in the future it must be a different document that addresses the concerns of the people and resolves them.

What do you make of suggestions from some quarters that the Irish ‘No’ vote, rather than ending the Lisbon Treaty, should or could result in a two-tier EU with the rest of the Union progressing on the basis of Lisbon, leaving the 26 Counties and possibly some other states on another, secondary track?
The treaty can’t happen unless it has the support of all member states and I think there was almost a menacing trend in the course of the debate where the ‘Yes’ campaign tried to coerce and frighten people into supporting the treaty. Unfortunately, that hasn’t fully gone away.
I think some of the reaction was almost hysterical. I think they need to calm down. Some people are claiming that our EU partners will be utterly inflexible on the whole issue of the defeat of the treaty. It seems to me that the Taoiseach is in a strong position now and will have the listening ear of all his European partners. The question is what it is he will say into that listening ear and how effective he can be in resolving the outstanding issues.
Europe needs to advance on a basis of equality. All eyes have been on Ireland in the course of this debate and I’d like to remind people that all eyes are still on Ireland and I believe that any attempt to set aside the will of the people will have very serious political consequences, not just here but across the entirety of the Union.
Since the outcome of the referendum we have been inundated with messages of support from all across the Union and the reason for that is that people understand that this is a moment of democratic truth.  We had messages of support in the tens of thousands.

Is the 26-county state being treated differently by the EU political elite and media compared to the way France and the Netherlands were treated following their rejection of the EU Constitution?
We can’t be treated any differently. When the French and the Dutch rejected the EU Constitution in 2005 the ratification process was suspended and that should happen now. When the French and the Dutch voted it down it simply wasn’t happening. But Sarkozy of France is saying that the ratification process should continue and I think that is very regrettable. It’s also illogical what he’s saying because he’s encouraging countries to ratify a treaty that cannot come into effect.
You could speculate that that approach could be used to try to pressurise Ireland into a re-run of the Lisbon Treaty but, as I said earlier, that is not an option. The treaty cannot be ratified without the support of the 27 states so the notion that ratification should go ahead is fundamentally illogical.

President Barroso of the EU Commission suggested that other EU states should continue with the Lisbon ratification process.
Barroso is wrong on this.
Let neither President Barroso nor anyone else think that what we have here is a case of treading water or biding time and putting the same proposition to the Irish people again. That’s just not acceptable. If they wish to put another treaty to the Irish people the text must be different and must address and resolve the issues.
Over the weekend I heard some commentator say we can’t be sure why people voted ‘No’.  I think that’s misleading. I think we know very clearly why people voted ‘No’. They voted ‘No’ because they don’t want a militarised EU and they don’t accept that Ireland’s neutrality is adequately protected under the proposed treaty. They voted ‘No’ because they don’t want Ireland’s position on the Commission weakened. They voted ‘No’ also because they saw that workers’ rights were not adequately protected.
For our own government or any government to look all starry-eyed and say they don’t know why people voted ‘No’ is not good enough. There’s no big mystery here. The issues are clear-cut and the issues need to be dealt with.  Neither can there be a ‘two-speed’ process where other states go ahead with ratification in the hope that the Irish will come round. There simply cannot be a treaty without the support of all 27 states.

What are the key issues in the Lisbon Treaty that Sinn Féin believes needs to be addressed or renegotiated?
Very specific issues around the loss of power, neutrality, workers’ rights and public services were raised repeatedly during the campaign and in opinion polls published throughout the campaign.
One is the importance of retaining a permanent commissioner and our current voting strength at the European Council and key strategic vetoes such as on the outcome of international trade talks.
Then, as I said, there is the vital issue of neutrality – a specific protocol in the Treaty protecting neutrality is required.
We also need a protocol to opt out from the European Atomic Energy Treaty.
Amendments are required to ensure greater protection of workers’ rights and to stop the opening up of vital public services to competition.
We also need measures to strengthen the social content of the EU project in order to balance the need for economic competitiveness with social cohesion and sustainable development.
The Taoiseach needs to be very firm in addressing these matters. He needs to set out very clearly the specific reason why Irish people found the Lisbon Treaty unacceptable and then he needs to agree with his partners a mechanism allowing these issues to be resolved.

Where do we go from here in terms of Lisbon and what is the purpose of the meeting which Sinn Féin has sought with the Taoiseach following the referendum?
Lisbon is dead and now we’re going into the next phase where we seek to secure measures that protect our neutrality, advance public services, improve workers’ rights and address all the concerns raised by the Irish people during the referendum.
We are seeking a meeting with the Taoiseach to discuss the issues which we believe can be addressed in a renegotiated treaty. We have put together a set of proposals to put to the Taoiseach before he goes to meet the Council this Thursday in Brussels. These are very realistic, achievable and reasonable propositions. We are publishing these proposals and making them available to the public.
This is not just about defeating Lisbon. It’s about ensuring that concerns and issues will be resolved adequately.
The Taoiseach needs to act on the mandate he has. While we want to be constructive and helpful, the onus is on him and the Government to act in the best interests of the Irish people and we want to be of assistance in so far as possible on this but we’re very clear that the buck stops with the Taoiseach and treading water or evading the issues won’t wash.

So a great result for the ‘No’ campaign?
Yes, for sure. We’re very pleased with the decision taken by the Irish people and we think it’s the right decision. It was a victory for common sense and a victory of the people over the political establishment.
We should commend the Sinn Féin organisation, our elected representatives and activists, the party’s Organisational Development Unit and the press people, all of whom put in a huge effort and all of whom are delighted that their considerable efforts paid off.



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