After Lisbon: Learning from the Netherlands
WHO voted 'No' to the Lisbon Treaty and why? Answering these questions allows us to see what opportunities are available for building Sinn Féin in the time ahead.
While the post-referendum opinion polls need to be treated with caution, and are in many respects contradictory, they reveal a number of recurring themes. Issues of influence, democracy, identity, militarisation and neutrality were all central to the treaty's rejection.
Importantly, 76 per cent of those who voted 'No', according to the European Commission Gallup poll, believed that a better deal was possible.
Unfortunately, the polls failed to ask whether issues of workers' rights or public services motivated people to reject the treaty. Nevertheless, the public stance of unions like SIPTU, Unite and the TEEU clearly had an impact on working-class attitudes.
The scale of the working-class rejection of the treaty can be seen in the Dublin results. Large middle-class constituencies returned strong 'Yes' votes: Dun Laoghaire (63 per cent), Dublin South (62 per cent) and Dublin South-East (61 per cent). Large working-class constituencies rejected the treaty by similar margins: Dublin South-West (65 per cent), Dublin Central (56 per cent) and Dublin South Central (60 per cent) and Dublin Mid-West (60 per cent).
This pattern was confirmed in the Gallup poll, indicating that 74 per cent of manual workers and 56 per cent of those unemployed voted 'No'.
In addition to the class nature of the 'No' vote there were also clear gender and youth dimensions. The Gallup poll indicated that 56 per cent of women voted 'No' while 65 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds and 59 per cent of 25 to 39-year-olds voted 'No'.
Crucially, the Gallup poll indicated 60 per cent of Fianna Fáil voters and 55 per cent of Labour voters said 'No'.
So what does this mean for Sinn Féin, particularly as we start to focus on the 2009 local and European elections?
When the people of the Netherlands rejected the EU Constitution in 2005, the Socialist Party asked themselves the same question.
Speaking to An Phoblacht this week, Dutch Socialist Party Senator Tiny Kox said that central to the post-referendum development of the party was the fact that the Socialist Party was generally seen as the most important political force of the 'No' side."
Like Ireland, Kox says, "people lacked clear information... people did not trust an ever more powerful Brussels... and people objected to the transfer of power to Brussels".
A large part of the Dutch 'No' was because "people did not trust the government", he says.
"A majority of the electorate was against the government when the referendum took place. We combined bad domestic and European politics in our campaign."
In the immediate aftermath of the 2005 referendum, the Socialist Party used the result to demonstrate "our strength in successfully changing the political direction of the country on a major issue. We gained a lot of trust during the referendum and we did not lose it after the referendum."
In March 2006, the Socialist Party doubled its representation at local government level. It jumped from 2.9 per cent to 5.7 per cent, gaining an additional 176 seats.
In the November 2006 general election, the Socialist Party won over 17 per cent of the vote, taking 25 seats, up 16 seats and 10 per cent from its 2003 result. Now the country's main opposition party, it is the country's third largest political force.
Kox explains how the referendum campaign assisted this dramatic growth:
"The referendum gave us the chance to communicate a clear message. We maintained that during the election campaigns."
Central to that campaign was a call for a broad left alliance including the social democrats, the formation of a progressive government to reverse the privatisation of the welfare state and to improve public services.
The success of the election campaign was clearly due to the Socialist Party's ability to articulate a political programme that was radical, reasonable and credible. Its desire to form a significant part of a centre-left government did not compromise its determination that such a government would be to the left of its major coalition partner.
Having won credibility during the referendum, the Dutch Socialist Party carefully replicated that success in both the local and general elections by marking itself out as distinct from the other parties while not alienating voters who wanted change that was reasonable and achievable.
In the end, the Social Democrats chose to form a government with their Christian Democratic partners, leaving the Socialist Party free to continue to campaign for greater change from the opposition benches.
It was the only major parliamentary party to call for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, a position supported by a majority of the electorate. With European elections in 2009, the party intends to make the campaign a de facto referendum on Lisbon.
Like Ireland, the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in the Netherlands was based on opposition from workers, women and young people. Again like Ireland, the post-referendum climate was one of disillusionment with government, public spending cuts and increased privatisation. The ability of the Socialist Party to accurately read the public mood while building on its post-referendum credibility was central to its electoral success.
The lessons for Sinn Féin are clear. A large section of the voting base of both Fianna Fáil and Labour chose not to follow their usual voting patterns in the referendum. These same people are those most vulnerable from the economic downturn. Rising unemployment, escalating costs of living and looming public spending cuts have opened up a clear space for a credible and radical left alternative to the status quo.
Many of those Fianna Fáil and Labour voters who rejected the Lisbon Treaty have taken one step closer to Sinn Féin. Now we must turn them into Sinn Féin supporters. If we can convince them that a better deal is possible in Europe, then we can do the same at home.
As with our Lisbon campaign, we need to offer a distinct, radical and credible alternative and convince an increasing number of people that a better deal is possible - one that promotes sustainable economic growth, workers' rights, public services and greater equality for all.