Monday, October 5, 2009

Reflections after Lisbon

So, Lisbon has been passed and, it has to be said, by a substantial margin.

I’m not going to go down the line that advocates of the treaty did when the same proposition was rejected last year which was basically “the people were too stupid to know what they were doing”. I think all democrats must accept the result, dust ourselves off and prepare for the next battle for the hearts and minds of the Irish electorate.

Standing back I don’t think the surprise is that the Lisbon Treaty was passed; rather that is was rejected in the first place and that even on this occasion a considerable 33% of people refused to be sold by a ‘Yes’ campaign that comprised of the collective energies of the entire political, corporate, religious and media establishment. The fact that a sizable section of the trade union movement also endorsed the treaty, while unsurprising, was disappointing and undoubtedly swayed many progressive voters.

The result presents challenges for us into the future. The first, obvious one, is to be ready to expose those ‘lies’ expressed by the yes side in the course of the referendum particularly relating to the economy.

(Looking forward to all the job creation? Don't hold your breath.)

We must also accept the need for independent analysis of all directions coming from the EU and of all decisions agreed by our government at EU level. I feel that a central failing of the No side was our simple acceptance of the ‘yes’ sides’ simple assertion that “Europe has been good for us”. Of course, the EU has been the source of much positive legislation (almost all of which regarding say, women’s and workers’ rights, could have been introduced by the Dáil) and many sectors have received welcome funding. But there is no organisation or body that analyses the role that the EU has played across the board without having a particular agenda.

There are also other lessons to be learned for those of us who campaigned for a ‘No’ vote.

Certainly the Coír campaign was often embarrassing and their poster proclaiming €1.84 minimum wage played straight into the government’s hands as once they were able to disprove one claim they managed to discredit the entire No campaign. Now I know there was a question mark on the poster and I accept that Coír were simply attempting to draw attention to the anti-worker decisions of the European Court of Justice but they should have left that to those people who actually knew what they were talking about.

Libertas, again as a group I have little affinity with, ran a relatively good campaign in fairness. They highlighted those aspects of the treaty which will impact on those sections of society that we, in Sinn Féin for example, couldn’t resonate with. Declan Ganley’s late arrival added nothing to the campaign however other than to excite the chattering classes in the media.

The UNITE and TEEU trade unions deserve great credit. They stuck specifically to the contents of the treaty and made a strong case for a No vote. Unfortunately the decision of SIPTU to change its position (on the back of Fine Gael and Labour promises) meant that the public perception was that the entire trade union movement was in unison in favour of the treaty.

For Sinn Féin’s part it is clear that we simply do not have credibility among a sufficient proportion of the electorate. Clearly the anti-Sinn Féin bias in the media holds a massive sway. Similarly, other than Lisbon itself, nothing unites the establishment political parties more than their hatred for republicans. But we can’t just keep whinging about these things. We have to accept them as a given and move on. The experience in Monaghan, for example, is that when Sinn Féin get a substantial mandate the other parties are less likely to spend their time attacking us for fear of missing out on transfers.

We have to get off our high horse; the reason Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour can direct so much venom towards Sinn Féin isn’t just because we go against the cosy cartel that has existed in this state since its foundation. It’s also because they know they can. We simply aren’t strong enough to combat it.

So, we need to get stronger. That means building a better organisation. It means that some of those people who have left our party in recent years must be encouraged to come back. We also need to attract thousands of new members and accept the fact that not all members will feel comfortable in the traditional cumann structure that the party operates. We need to alter the definition of what a Sinn Féin member is and agree that it will not always be necessary for someone to attend three meetings a week and go leafleting, campaigning etc for the other four evenings to meet the criteria.

We also need to build and support an alternative media. The failure of the Daily Ireland initiative was disappointing. I sincerely hope that somebody, or a collection of individuals, will at some point in the future launch an alternative progressive national daily newspaper. In the mean-time there is a need to increase the level of other means of media such as newsletters and on-line methods such as social networking sites and you-tube.

It is only by building a strong Republican party delivering a strong Republican message can we hope to win the battle for Irish hearts and minds. This is a historic project that will take many years to achieve. It certainly cannot be measured in election cycles or election results although these will always be useful indicators as to the success, or otherwise, of our efforts.

As a first step we need all progressive political groupings and parties, whether coming primarily from a socialist or republican perspective, to work together on issues of mutual concern. They/ We should each start concentrating their/ our energies on the conservative forces in our society, of which there are many. It is draining to see progressive parties and organisations attacking Sinn Féin rather than joining us in tackling the greatest challenges facing our nation i.e. partition, poverty and inequality.

There is a large amount of work to do in the struggle for a United Democratic Irish Republic. A battle was lost last weekend; and the hard work has only started.