Ireland’s Referendum: Aye’s have it, but apathy wins the day

Daniel Crump 

Image © Foreign and Commonwealth Office

We now know that Ireland have officially endorsed the European Fiscal Pact. It was a hard fought campaign with both the ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ camp sketching out the worst case scenario if voters did not listen to them. It will be to the benefit of Ireland in the long term that the ‘YES’ camp have won the day. Ireland is still in an incredibly fragile position economically, and the last thing they needed to do was spook the markets even further by rejecting tighter fiscal discipline.

The saddest part of the whole affair is not that it was such a close run contest, but that it almost seems fitting to commend those who actually formed an opinion at all. Figures suggest that fewer than half of the 3.1m registered voters turned out to make their decision. This makes turn out, at best, 50% in some regions and, at worst, below 30% in others.

In the end, the right camp won out. This is Europe’s second chance at imposing coordinated oversight of fiscal policy and setting workable and imposable limits on structural deficits. Even Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe and the champion of efficiency, broke the original rules set out in the 1992 Maastricht treaty on state borrowing. Whilst this has been a popular argument against the fiscal pact, not least in the southern economies, this is not the time to look back in anger, but to acknowledge that something must now be done to shore up the single currency for the future.

For Ireland, a No vote would have effectively denied them all future bailouts from the troika of the EU, ECB and IMF. If Ireland is serious about returning to the bond markets in 2014, as is their stated aim, they may well need to continue on life support for the time being. Turning off the supply would leave this already ambitious target in serious jeopardy.

Having said that, one can certainly see why the ‘NO’ camp was tempting some voters to their way of thinking. Out of the so called ‘PIIGS’ economies of Southern Europe, Ireland have been courting the approval of the financial markets and their European neighbours. They have won praise by implementing deep austerity measures, cutting into their enormous budget deficit and recapitalising a near collapsed banking system. When they look across to their fellow strugglers and the possibility of Eurobonds writing off yet more Greek debt, it is not unreasonable to ask what all the hard work was for.

Also, Ireland deserve credit for actually offering their citizens a referendum, they were in fact the only European country to do so. Despite being in favour of gay marriage, I believed Cameron was right to allow his party members to vote the way they wanted. Similarly, offering the people of Ireland a choice, and seeing the No camp win, is still preferable to not having the vote in the first place. Allowing people the choice, and convincing them why they should vote for you, is how enlightened politics is done, otherwise, what’s the point of democracy?

Given the serious nature of this whole issue, and the amount of competing opinions trying to monopolise the media agenda, why did so many people decide it wasn’t worth their time to get out and vote?

The usual kneejerk response to this is that citizens are not well enough informed about the issues and therefore do not understand exactly what they are voting for. This is somehow the fault of politicians, failing to educate their citizens and making the information available.

These are not the days of trawling through dusty textbooks at the library, or booking an appointment with your local MP to learn about an issue. One or two clicks of a computer mouse will enable you to access all the information you need. Popular websites like the BBC or Guardian offer helpful Q and A sections, spelling out why each camp believes what it believes, and the likely consequences of voting either way.

Of course, some of us can get obsessive about politics, constantly updating twitter with BBC news 24 in the background, while others simply don’t have the time to devote to keeping abreast of all the latest news updates. This may be true, but what many political aficionados soon realise is that half an hour in front of the 10 o’clock news is more than enough for a healthy introduction to any debate.

Occasionally there might be an issue that baffles even the most interested news recipient. Scottish Independence, for example, or Cameron’s Big Society, has highlighted how Governments can occasionally fail to coherently explain why their flagship policy is worth people’s time and attention. The Irish referendum was not one of these issues. The Euro crisis permeates our lives every day, from an in depth discussion on Newsnight to a glimpse at a Newspaper front page while queuing in a corner shop. It is therefore utterly baffling that so many people failed to brave the rain and cast their vote on the fiscal treaty. It is also infuriating when these are the first people to complain when the consequences of the result don’t sit well with them.

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