The sense of collective remorse in Ireland following the negative referendum on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty is “palpable”, Quintin Oliver, a specialist in referenda, told EURACTIV in an interview in which he warned against pressuring the Irish on voting again.
Oliver compared the situation in Ireland with the recent election of “maverick candidate” Boris Johnson as Mayor of London. “There is a collective gasp when individuals see that they have been part of a collective that has bucked the system,” he said.
Oliver says that the Irish government failed to “sell the future under the Treaty in a positive, simple, coherent, lucid way”. They made the mistake of looking backwards and thinking that gratitude to Europe would be enough to secure a ‘yes’ vote, he said. Oliver also criticised the ‘yes’ camp for not having learned lessons from the failed Nice referendum and for not having started work six months in advance, preparing a cross-party platform.
“That was a sign of utmost complacency,” the expert added.
According to him, the situation was further aggravated by the forced resignation of former Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, with his successor Brian Cowen lacking the time to properly address the situation.
“In a sense, the referendum was doomed by that moment,” Oliver said. He also pointed to other mistakes such as underestimating the ‘no’ camp and its shadowy sponsor Declan Ganley. Regarding the famous comments by Prime Minister Brian Cowen and Irish Commissioner Charlie McCreevy, who said they had not read the treaty, he said these blunders had been “elevated” and caused more harm than they would have in an election context. In a referendum, he explained, people are less bound by political allegiance and the punitive vote is even stronger.
Quintin Oliver also criticised the ‘yes’ camp for its failure to pre-empt and counter the “mistruths and untruths” voiced by the ‘no’ camp – their arguments about abortion, militarisation, conscription and Irish neutrality.
He cautioned that a re-run of the referendum should only take place if the conditions are adequate and if the political class can identify the right messages. According to him, it would be a huge mistake to tell the Irish “You made a mistake and now you should correct it”. He also warned that calling a re-run in accordance with the Brussels calendar and before the European elections could be counterproductive, because the Irish might feel “patronised, bullied or manipulated”.