Category Archives: Ireland

Sinn Fein joins list of surging anti-austerity forces in Europe

Mary Lou McDonald, the deputy leader of Sinn Féin, represents a new post-IRA, anti-austerity face. (Facebook).
Mary Lou McDonald, the deputy leader of Sinn Féin, represents a new post-IRA, anti-austerity face. (Facebook).

In April, Ireland will celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Easter Rising, the failed rebellion of an overpowered band of Irish republicans.Ireland Icon

The heavy-handed response of British troops ended up martyring the republican cause, their lethal overreaction ultimately changing, and hardening, Irish public opinion in favor of independence from the United Kingdom.

Under the penumbra of this year’s centennial celebrations, Irish voters will go to the polls on February 26, after Enda Kenny, Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister) announced last week the dissolution of the Irish parliament, the Dáil, to ask voters to reelect his center-right Fine Gael, along with its junior coalition partner, Ireland’s social democratic Labour Party.

But polls show that the party with the most momentum is Sinn Féin, which hopes to capitalize on several factors toward what would be a historic victory. Hoping to peel off disaffected Labour voters, Sinn Féin might even be within striking distance of first place, given that no single party will come close to an absolute majority. Continue reading Sinn Fein joins list of surging anti-austerity forces in Europe

After Irish vote, what next for same-sex marriage in Europe?

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There’s no doubt that the landmark vote in Ireland on May 22, the first such referendum where a popular majority enacted same-sex marriage, has been received as a huge step forward for marriage equality and LGBT rights in Europe.Ireland IconEuropean_Union

While the United States supreme court is set to rule later in June on marriage equality as a legal and constitutional matter within all 50 states, it may feel like a watershed moment in Europe as well, where French president François Hollande and the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) and British prime minister David Cameron and the Conservative Party both swung behind legislative efforts to enact same-sex marriage, in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

Luxembourg’s prime minister Xavier Bettel officially married his own partner in May, but it was only six years ago that Iceland’s Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir became the world’s first openly LGBT head of government, followed shortly by Belgian prime minister Elio Di Rupo.

Yet the lopsided Irish referendum victory — it passed with 62.07% of the vote and the ‘Yes’ camp won all but one constituency (Roscommon-South Leitrim) — obscures the fact that additional marriage equality gains across the European Union will be slow to materialize. Leave aside the notion, now reinforced by Ireland, that the human rights of a minority can be legitimately subjected to referendum — a precedent that Europeans may come to regret. Amid the recent burst of marriage equality in Europe, the immediate future seems grim.

Nowhere is that more true than just next door in Northern Ireland, which is the only part of the United Kingdom that doesn’t permit same-sex marriage. With the Protestant, federalist electorate dominated by the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), one of western Europe’s most harshly anti-LGBT political parties, there’s little hope that Northern Ireland will follow in the footsteps of England, Scotland and Wales. At the end of April, Northern Irish health minister Jim Wells was forced to resign after suggesting same-sex couples were inferior parents. It’s home to the late Ian Paisley’s ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign in the late 1970s, and it’s where sexual relations between two consenting same-sex partners were illegal until 1981, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Northern Irish law violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

But Northern Ireland is not alone in its reticence — marriage equality faces long hurdles in some of the European Union’s most important countries, including Germany, Italy and Poland.

The irony is that despite Europe’s leading role two decades ago on LGBT marriage rights, the United States could eclipse Europe with the supreme court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, as the European Union struggles for years to enact consistent marriage equality legislation. Continue reading After Irish vote, what next for same-sex marriage in Europe?

A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 3)

Nearly a week after the European elections, the reverberations are still shaking the entire continent, on at least two levels — the consequences of the historic level of eurosceptic parties elected across Europe and in terms of the growing battle between the European Parliament and the European Council over electing the next European Commission president. European_Union

In the first part of a Suffragio series examining the results of the May 25 European parliamentary elections, I focused on the five most populous countries in the European Union: the United Kingdom and France, where eurosceptic parties won the greatest share of the vote; Germany, where chancellor Angela Merkel won another strong victory; Italy, where prime minister Matteo Renzi won a near-landslide mandate just three months into his premiership; and Spain, where both traditional parties lost support to a growing constellation of anti-austerity movements — so much so that Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the leader of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), Spain’s traditional center-left party, resigned

In the second part, I examined the results in nine more countries — Poland, Romania, The Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Hungary and Sweden.

In the third and final part, I examine the results in the remaining 14 countries of the European Union. Continue reading A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 3)

A rogues’ gallery of the EU’s top 13 eurosceptic parties

skepticismAs voters in 28 European countries prepare to head to the polls, beginning on May 22 and running through May 25, no one knows whether Europe’s center-left or center-right will win more seats, and no one knows who will ultimately become the next president of the European Commission.European_Union

But the one thing upon which almost everyone agrees is that Europe’s various eurosceptic parties are set for a huge victory — not enough seats to determine the outcomes of EU legislation and policymaker, perhaps, but enough to form a strong, if disunited, bloc of relatively anti-federalist voices. Voters, chiefly in the United Kingdom, France and Italy, are set to cast strong protest votes that could elect more than 100 eurosceptic MEPs.

In some countries, such as Spain, euroscepticism is still a limited force the center-left opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) is tied for the lead with the governing center-right Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy. But Spain is quickly becoming an outlier as eurosceptic parties are springing up in places where unionist sentiment once ran strong.

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RELATED: In Depth: European parliamentary elections
RELATED: The European parliamentary elections are really four contests

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Of course, not all eurosceptics are created equally. Some anti-Europe parties have been around for decades, while others weren’t even in existence at the time of the last elections in 2009. Some are virulently xenophobic, far-right or even neo-Nazi in their outlooks, while others are cognizably on the more mainstream conservative / leftist ideological spectrum. Some seek nothing short of their country’s withdrawal from the European Union altogether, while others seek greater controls on immigration. Some are even pro-Europe in the abstract, but oppose eurozone membership. That’s one of the reasons why eurosceptics have had so much trouble uniting across national lines — the mildest eurosceptic parties abhor the xenophobes, for example.

If everyone acknowledges that eurosceptic parties will do well when the votes are all counted on Sunday, no one knows whether that represents a peak of anti-Europe support, given the still tepid economy and high unemployment across the eurozone, or whether it’s part of a trend that will continue to grow in 2019 and 2024.

With 100 seats or so in the European Parliament, eurosceptics can’t cause very many problems. They can make noise, and they stage protests, but they won’t hold up the EU parliamentary agenda. With 200 or even 250 seats, though, they could cause real damage. There’s no rule that says that eurosceptics can’t one day win the largest block of EP seats, especially so long as most European voters ignore Europe-wide elections or treat them as an opportunity to protest unpopular national government.

For now, though, they’re all bound to cause plenty of trouble for their more mainstream rivals at the national level, and in at least five countries, they could wind up with the largest share of the vote. So it’s still worth paying attention to them.

Without further ado, here are the top 13 eurosceptic parties to keep an eye on as the results are announced on Sunday:

Continue reading A rogues’ gallery of the EU’s top 13 eurosceptic parties

What’s going on with Gerry Adams and the Northern Irish police?

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With just less than a month until voters in both Ireland and Northern Ireland choose their representatives to the European Parliament, the Belfast police have for the past four days given the Irish republican Sinn Féin a potent campaign issue — and exacerbated tensions nearly two decades after the struggle between Irish Catholics and Protestants moved from killing and violence to the realm of politics. northernirelandIreland Icon

Northern Ireland’s police force arrested Gerry Adams, the leader of the republican Sinn Féin since the early 1980s on Wednesday, holding him for four days in relation to one of the most brutal murders of the Northern Irish violence. Other Sinn Féin leaders, including Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, have attacked the arrest as a political stunt, but other politicians in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have been more reticent to comment on what’s become an unpredictable turn of events.

The  arrest relates to the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 who was pulled from her home by armed gunmen within  the Irish Republican Army. She was later killed and ‘disappeared,’ her remains found only in 2003. It was a particularly cruel murder among many such killings during Northern Ireland’s  ‘Troubles,’ the violent struggle between unionist Protestants who largely supported Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom, and Irish nationalist Catholics, who wanted northern Ireland to be part of a unified Irish republic.

The struggle dates to 1921, when the United Kingdom partitioned Ireland into the largely Protestant Northern Ireland and the largely Catholic Southern Ireland. A year later, Southern Ireland became the ‘Irish Free State,’ but most of Northern Ireland’s residents remained committed unionists, despite a strong, organized Catholic minority that favored Ireland’s unification. When the Republic of Ireland gained full independence in 1949, Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom, a status that continues to this day. The IRA began an armed struggle against British rule in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s.

Throughout the worst of the political violence in the 1970s and the 1980s, Sinn Féin emerged as the political arm of the IRA. Though Adams (pictured aboveclaims that he was never a member of the IRA, there were always strong links between the two organizations, and Adams has never apologized for advancing the IRA’s political interests.

Adams surrendered to police on Wednesday in connection to the re-opening of the investigation, and they held him in custody through the weekend, going so far as to obtain a court order in request of an additional 48 hours to interrogate Adams. He was released earlier Sunday without charge — for now.

Former IRA leader Brendan Hughes accused Adams of having organized and ordered the killing on suspicion that McConville was a British spy. Hughes died in 2008, but made the claim to a Boston College historian compiling an oral history of the Troubles. Hughes strenuously broke with Adams after the Sinn Féin leader accepted the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, so his accusations must come with some amount of skepticism — he’s also been dead for six years, making his charge against Adams problematic from an evidentiary point of view.

Shaun Woodward, a British Labour MP and former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, argues in The Guardian that Adams’s arrest highlights the need for a way to address the atrocities committed during the Troubles in a manner that doesn’t jeopardize the future of Northern Ireland’s government and what’s still very much an ongoing peace process:

South Africa dealt with its past through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I can already hear the politicians screaming no, but that’s to be expected: the thing is to take the argument directly to the people. Nor is it for outsiders to choose whether this model could work for Northern Ireland. What is clear is that we need something that allows justice to be seen to be done, without crippling the peace process or simply avoiding the issue. Without a mechanism that is both fair and based on quasi-judicial principles, it is impossible to imagine that Northern Ireland will ever successfully move out of the clenched jaws of its grisly past.

So what does this latest development mean for politics in Northern Ireland and in the southern Republic of Ireland?

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Adams’s arrest could derail 16-year peace in Northern Ireland

The 1998 ‘Good Friday’ agreement largely brought the sectarian violence to an end, and Adams now leads Sinn Féin as a force within both Northern Ireland, where the party sits on the Northern Ireland Executive — it largely governs alongside its rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and other parties. Sinn Féin holds four ministries, the DUP holds five ministries, and three other parties hold another four ministries. Adams’s colleague McGuinness has served as the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland since 2007. Continue reading What’s going on with Gerry Adams and the Northern Irish police?

Irish vote to retain the Seanad deals blow to Kenny, who pledges parliamentary reform instead

Kiss me, I'm David Norris

Irish voters delight in contrarianism.Ireland Icon

When Irish voters were supposed to endorse the Treaty of Nice in 2001, they rejected it instead.  After nine months of renegotiation with the European Union to secure recognition of Ireland’s traditional military neutrality, Dublin held a second referendum and Irish voters adopted the revised Nice treaty.  Irish voters did the same thing in June 2008, when they rejected the Treaty of Lisbon by an equally narrow margin (again, Dublin set about renegotiating and held a successful referendum shortly thereafter).

When Irish voters, suffering under severe budget cuts and tax increases, may have had a gripe with last year’s European ‘fiscal compact’ (not a treaty, in the formal sense, because of the United Kingdom’s veto), they instead approved the fiscal compact by a wide margin in the June 2012 referendum.

In Sunday’s referendum, Ireland’s stubborn voters were expected to vote to abolish the Seanad Éireann (Irish senate), the upper house of the Oireachtas, Ireland’s parliament, on the promise of a future with fewer politicians instead of more.

Political leaders across all lines — the Irish left, the Irish center-right and even Irish nationalists — supported moving to a unicameral system to cut up to $20 million in annual costs and to eliminate a chamber that’s largely seen as unrepresentative, undemocratic and wasteful, while using the opportunity to register disgust with a political elite that remains unpopular in the wake of a sovereign debt crisis, the failure of Irish banks, and a humiliating European bailout that has imposed a new era of austerity in a country that, only a decade ago, was known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ for its surging economy.

But perhaps the Irish electorate decided to register its contrarianism at the very notion of being perceived as anti-politician contrarians.

For whatever reason, not enough Irish voters elected to abolish the Seanad, and the October 4 referendum was defeated by a narrow margin of 51.7% voting ‘No,’ and just 48.3% voting ‘Yes.’

The result broke down on largely regional lines.  Voters in Munster and Connacht in the west of the country largely voted to abolish the Irish senate, while the northern state of Ulster and the eastern state of Leinster (including all of the constituencies in Dublin) voted to retain the senate.  In particular, Ulster voters worried that the elimination of the Irish senate would also eliminate the one forum where Northern Irish voices have been historically heard within the government of the Republic of Ireland.

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The result left the Taoiseach (Ireland’s prime minster), Enda Kenny, with perhaps the biggest defeat since taking power in March 2011.  Kenny campaigned on the promise of eliminating the Irish senate, and the referendum fulfills a promise to bring the issue to a direct referendum.  But as Kenny said following the result: ‘Sometimes in politics you get a wallop.’

The defeat is another warning sign of the growing unpopularity of Kenny’s government — though voters blamed Fianna Fáil for the initial Irish banking crisis and its aftermath, they seem to be holding Fine Gael responsible for the austerity that’s followed since the 2011 elections.

A recent October 1 RTE poll showed that Kenny’s liberal center-right Fine Gael has plummeted to 26% support (after winning 36.1% in the last election), while its coalition partner, the progressive Labour Party wins just 6% support, the lowest level in decades (after winning 19.4% in 2011).  Though the conservative center-right Fianna Fáil has regained some ground at 22% (up from 17.4% in 2011), the real winner is the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin, which polled 23% support (up from 9.9% in 2011).

Among the supporters of abolishing the Irish senate were Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Féin and Ireland’s Socialist Party.  Politically speaking, the result was a victory for Ireland’s most successful post-independence party, the conservative center-right Fianna Fáil, which suffered a historical loss in the 2011 election.   Fianna Fáil campaigned against eliminating the Irish senate in favor of reforming it, arguing that it served as a necessary watchdog against poor government.  Kenny had received criticism prior to the vote for refusing to debate Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, and those criticisms amplified in the aftermath of the referendum’s defeat.

It’s also a victory for many of Ireland’s longtime independent senators, some of whom are incredibly colorful and thoughtful figures, including David Norris (pictured above kissing a supporter), a scholar of James Joyce and Ireland’s first major openly gay presidential candidateContinue reading Irish vote to retain the Seanad deals blow to Kenny, who pledges parliamentary reform instead

Should Ireland abolish its Seanad (Senate) and go unicameral?

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Irish voters will determine on Friday whether to eliminate the Seanad Éireann (Irish senate), the upper house of the Oireachtas, Ireland’s parliament.

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Before you think that this is such a transformative step in Irish governance, it’s important to keep in mind that the Irish senate doesn’t have nearly the powers of, say, the United States senate because it doesn’t have veto power over Irish legislation — at worst, the Irish senate can delay lawmaking, not bring it to a halt.  Furthermore, its members aren’t directly elected by the people, leading to charges that the upper house is a wasteful, undemocratic, unrepresentative anachronism.

If, as expected, Irish voters approve the referendum, the Irish senate will cease to exist as of the next Irish general election, which must take place before 2016.

It’s one of the campaign pledges that Taoiseach Enda Kenny (pictured above) promised in advance of the February 2011 parliamentary elections that swept his liberal center-right Fine Gael into power, in coalition with the social democratic Labour Party.  In an odd-bedfellows coalition, most of Ireland’s major parties support abolishing the Senate, including Fine Gael and Labour, but also the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin.  Only the conservative center-right Fianna Fáil, which suffered a historic defeat in the 2011 election, opposes the referendum and prefers to retain the senate, albeit a reformed, more representative, more productive senate.

The system by which the upper house’s 60 senators are appointed is truly anachronistic — the Taoiseach appoints 11 and graduates of the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland are each entitled to elect three senators.  The remaining 43 are nominated from five ‘vocational panels’ that span the public/administrative, agricultural/fishing, cultural/educational, industrial/commercial, and labour sectors.  In practice, this means that the Irish senate is  where a lot of failed political candidates land.  The remaining house, the Dáil Éireann, is composed of 166 deputies.

Given that Ireland has been rocked by economic crisis following the 2008-09 financial crisis that saw Ireland nationalize some of its banks and assume their obligations, Kenny and other supporters of the referendum argue that the Irish senate is an unnecessary and undemocratic expense for such a small country as Ireland (with 4.6 million people), especially in light of its 40-year membership in the European Union, which remains responsible for an increasing amount of regulatory standards within Ireland.

Many Irish voters agree — an IPSOS poll earlier this week showed 44% favored abolition, 27% opposed abolition, while 21% were unsure, though when undecideds had to choose, the pro-abolition side won 62% to 38%.

Although countries don’t abolish entire legislative chambers every day, it’s not wholly unprecedented, either.  New Zealand abolished its unelected Legislative Council in 1950, Denmark abolished its upper house in 1953 and Sweden followed suit in 1970.  Generally speaking, unicameral parliaments are more common on the periphery of the European Union than in its core — they exist in Portugal, all of the Scandinavian states (including Iceland), all three Balkan state, Slovakia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece, Cyprus and Ukraine.

The arguments for unicameralism, generally, mirror those that Kenny and ‘Yes’ supporters are making in Ireland.   Continue reading Should Ireland abolish its Seanad (Senate) and go unicameral?

Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died

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Seamus Heaney, the Nobel laureate and leading Irish poet, has died at age 74 after a very brief illness. Ireland Icon

If you have to ask the relation between Irish writers and Irish politics and history, you don’t know Ireland well enough — and it’s not enough to know that Heaney was friends with Ireland’s president Michael D. Higgins.  An obituary from RTE is here.

Here’s one of my favorite poems, ‘Postscript,’ perhaps appropriate enough for Heaney’s passing today:

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Who is Michael Higgins? (And about that YouTube takedown…)

So this clip of Irish president Michael D. Higgins from a call on conservative Michael Graham’s radio show taking down the “tea party” movement in the United States has gone viral in the last 24 hours.

The first thing to realize is that it’s from May 2010.  Three things follow from that:

  • It’s the height of the “tea party” movement in the United States.
  • It’s the height of the U.S. right’s opposition to the health care bill in the United States proposed by President Barack Obama, when many on the U.S. right were calling out every country from Ireland to Canada to Switzerland to Great Britain as having “socialist” health care schemes.
  • It’s before the October 2011 presidential election in Ireland, so it’s from before the time when Michael Higgins became the Irish head of state.

In his time as president, Higgins hasn’t picked any fights, in Ireland or abroad, however.  As head of state, he does not direct policy — that job falls to the taoiseach (Ireland’s prime minister) Enda Kenny.

In the clip, Higgins comes across as passionately defending a strong role for government, but seems a little unhinged (or passionate, depending on your viewpoint) when it comes to disparaging the tea party movement, the American right and former Alaska governor and former U.S. vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, in particular:

The tactic is to get a large crowd, to whip them up, try and discover what is the greatest fear, work on that and feed it right back and you get a frenzy.  This tea party ignorance that is being brought all around the United States is regularly insulting people who have been democratically elected.

Higgins proceeded to call Graham “just a wanker whipping up fear.”

Oh my!

To the extent Higgins seems frustrated and perplexed by the tea party movement and the American right generally, in the clip above, it’s because that strain of particularly American laissez-faire, anti-government politics is so foreign to his own social democratic tradition.

Higgins comes from the Labour Party in Ireland, which is the major leftist force in Irish politics and which has a strong social democratic tradition (in terms of comparison, it would be closer to the New Democratic Party in Canada than to the Liberal Party).

Ireland’s two main parties, historically, have been centrist (Fianna Fáil) and center-right / vaguely Christian democratic (Fine Gail).

Before his presidential election, Higgins had long served in the Dáil (Ireland’s parliament) for the Labour Party, and during the Fine Gail-led government of 1994 to 1997, Higgins served as minister for arts, culture and the Gaeltacht (i.e., the predominantly Irish-speaking regions of Ireland), where he established an Irish-language television station and notably, scrapped Section 31 of Ireland’s Broadcasting Authority Act, which actually forbade the Irish media from broadcasting the voice of any Sinn Féin member.

The 2011 election was a bit odd, given that Fine Gail’s candidate never really connected with voters and Fianna Fáil didn’t really offer up a candidate.  The election followed a period of “two Marys” — Mary McAleese, who served from 1997 to 2011 and Mary Robinson before her, who served from 1990 to 1997, both of whom were independent candidates and both of whom changed the Irish presidential concept into something even more abstract and apolitical than the line of Fianna Fáil politicians who preceded them.

For much of the campaign leading up to the election, another independent, Irish senator David Norris (and a Joyce scholar!) was the frontrunner for the presidency, and would have become the world’s first openly gay head of state, but fell behind after being implicated in a scandal.

Accordingly, the race came down to Higgins, independent Seán Gallagher (essentially a placeholder for Fianna Fáil-minded voters) and Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Féin candidate.  Higgins ultimately defeated Gallagher by 39.6% to 28.5%, although the race seemed a lot closer than the final tally indicates — Gallagher’s last-minute admission of collecting campaign funds from a Fianna Fáil fundraiser led to a fall-off in his support.

Ireland votes ‘yes’ to fiscal compact in referendum

The count is underway, but it looks certain that the fiscal compact will pass yesterday’s Irish referendum — by around a 60-40 margin:

According to results received at the central count centre in Dublin Castle to date, 57.6 per cent voted Yes, while 42.4 per cent voted No, when spoiled or invalid votes are excluded. Turnout is in the region of 50 per cent.

Of the 15 constituencies to submit full results, 12 have recorded a Yes vote. Full constituency-by-constituency results are available here.

Earlier this week, I looked at some of the reasons why Irish voters seemed more inclined to accept this treaty on the first vote, after rejecting the Treaty of Nice in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008: in no insignificant terms, a ‘no’ vote would have perhaps caused international investors to flee Ireland and maybe has caused Ireland to be unable to access the European Stability Mechanism.  Also, given that the treaty need not be unanimously ratified, Ireland would have had no ability to reject the treaty in favor of additional concessions from Brussels.
At a time when anti-austerity forces are gathering momentum across Europe, the treaty vote in the tiny country, hamstrung by a European bailout, is not going to stem that momentum.  But it is a significant victory for the mainstream Irish political parties (who have finally won a pro-EU vote for the first time since 1997) and for Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his government: the message Irish voters are sending today, both to European leaders and the markets seems to be, “Not to worry, Ireland’s not Greece.”
It is a defeat for Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin — Adams’s vocal opposition to the treaty did not convince Irish voters in the face of such strong arguments (some might say blackmail) from the markets and from mainstream politicians.

Irish set to approve fiscal compact in Thursday referendum

Ireland’s feisty voters, which have developed an art form out of defeating European Union treaties, still seem likely to support the fiscal compact treaty in Thursday’s referendum:

Polls show the ‘yes’ vote in the lead — the latest Irish Times poll shows 39% in favor, 30% opposed, with 22% undecided and 9% not voting.  Other polls have shown even strong support for the ‘yes’ camp.

After the Sturm und Drang of May 2012’s electoral wave, which has seen voters support anti-austerity politicians from Germany to Greece, the fiscal compact seems to have less momentum than ever.

So it would be a plucky twist of fate if Ireland, which has become the bête noire of EU treaty making — its constitution provides that a EU treaty is an amendment of the Irish constitution and, consequently, must be approved in a referendum — gives a thumbs-up to a fiscal compact that might never go into law EU-wide and would result in a loss of Irish sovereignty with respect to its own fiscal policymaking.

Furthermore, over the course of Ireland’s four decades in the EU, Irish voters have voted on six treaties, and in each case, the initial pro-treaty vote has decreased for each new treaty:

In each of the last two efforts, for the Treaty of Nice in 2001 and the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008, Irish voters initially defeated the treaty, Irish negotiators worked to attain new concessions from the EU and each treaty was subsequently ratified in a second referendum.

The fiscal compact, cobbled together by Merkel and then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy in December 2011 amid soaring bond prices for Spanish and Italian debt, would limit each EU member state to a structural budget deficit of just 0.5% of GDP.  That target seemed unrealistic in November, but seems even more so today, with many European economies still stagnant (or in recession).  Newly elected French president François Hollande has called for revisiting the terms of the fiscal compact during and after his election.

So the final ratification of the fiscal compact is far from certain, with or without Ireland.  As the UK and the Czech Republic opted out of the fiscal compact, the fiscal compact is not, as a technical matter, a formal EU treaty.  Accordingly, it needs ratification from just 12 eurozone members before January 1, 2013 to go into effect.

As of today, it has received just three conditional ratifications. In Slovenia and Portugal, national parliaments have approved the fiscal compact, but the ratifications are not formally complete without presidential approval.  The only other country to ratify the fiscal compact is Greece, whose May parliamentary elections were so inconclusive that the country must hold a second set in June, which could very well result in electing Europe’s most anti-austerity government.

So why, in the face of so many reasons to junk the fiscal compact, which may not even be ratified by the rest of Europe, are Ireland’s voters set to approve it on Thursday? Continue reading Irish set to approve fiscal compact in Thursday referendum

Pro-referendum forces maintain momentum in Ireland

For me, one of the key questions about the recent French and Greek elections has been how those results would play in Ireland — would a firm anti-austerity wave across the continent make Irish voters more or less likely, in the upcoming May 31 referendum, to endorse the December fiscal compact agreed among all of the European Union members (except the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic)?

Surprisingly, perhaps, given the increasingly cynical response of Irish voters in these EU treaty referenda, the “Yes” vote camp still seems to be maintaining (or even strengthening) its lead over the “No” vote.  The latest poll shows 53% in favor of the treaty (an increase of 6% over the prior poll), with only 31% opposed.

The momentum comes even as German chancellor Angela Merkel finds herself increasingly on the defense against an emergent pro-growth (and anti-austerity) wing from both the periphery — e.g. Greece — and the heart — e.g. France, North Rhine-Westphalia — of the EU.

Say what you will about the current Eurocrisis, it is fascinating to watch the increasingly interlinked politics among the EU member states.  For the first time in EU history, notwithstanding decades of (politically meaningless?) European parliamentary elections, a bona fide European politics has emerged in the austerity/growth debate.  It transcends the traditional right/left axis of national politics and the very existential debate of federalism vs. intergovernmentalism.

Yesterday, Irish finance minister Michael Noonan argued that supporting the fiscal compact would send a message to the EU that Ireland is serious:

Mr Noonan said adopting the treaty will send a signal out to Europe that the Irish are serious, committed people, and committed to the repair job required for the economy.

If we vote No, he said, Europe will move on and we will be left with less than full membership of the eurozone.

To laughter from the audience at an economic summit organised by Bloomberg in Dublin this morning, Mr Noonan said he does not want Ireland to be a pavilion member of the eurozone “where you are allowed drink in the bar, but not play the course”. Continue reading Pro-referendum forces maintain momentum in Ireland

Three elections — and three defeats — for EU-wide austerity

The concept of a ‘democratic deficit’ has long plagued the European Union — the EU’s history is littered with grand, transformative schemes planned by EU leaders that voters have ultimately rejected as too sweeping.  As recently as 2005, French and Dutch voters rejected the proposed EU constitution, smacking the EU elite for getting out too far in front of an electorate that clearly did not approve.

Sure enough, the story of the last three days — in the UK, in France and in Greece — will go down in EU history as a similar pivot point against German chancellor Angela Merkel’s attempt to impose strict fiscal discipline across the continent, even as additional electoral hiccups await in the North-Rhine Westphalia state elections later this week, the Irish referendum on the fiscal compact later this month and French and Dutch parliamentary elections due later this summer.

French president-elect François Hollande will now immediately become the face of the EU-wide opposition to austerity and is expected to challenge Merkel with a view that advocates more aggressive spending in a bid to balance fiscal responsibility with the promotion of economic growth — a distinct change in Franco-German relations after the ‘Merkozy’ years.  In his victory speech, Hollande called for a ‘fresh start for Europe’ and laid down his gauntlet: ‘austerity need not be Europe’s fate.’

It is an incredible turnaround from December, when Merkel and deposed French president Nicolas Sarkozy single-handedly pushed through the fiscal compact adopted by each of the EU member states (minus the UK and the Czech Republic), which would bind each member state to a budget deficit of no more than just 0.5% of GDP.  The treaty followed in the wake of the latest eurozone financial crisis last November, during which both the governments of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Georgios Papandreou in Greece fell, to be replaced by Berlin-approved technocratic governments, each tasked with the express purpose of making reforms to cut their governments’ respective budgets.

Continue reading Three elections — and three defeats — for EU-wide austerity

Irish referendum to be held May 31

Mark your calendars: the Irish referendum on the European Union fiscal compact will take place on May 31.

If the Merkel-led austerity doesn’t take any hits following the French presidential election or the Greek parliamentary elections, it will still face the gauntlet of a feisty Irish electorate that might not be too keen on institutionalizing budgetary limits into the fabric of the EU, although the threats lurking behind any “No” vote — no further access to EU bailout money and higher interest rates — might well be more disastrous.

 

One strategy for the Irish vote: blackmail

The economists have spoken: Irish voters should vote “yes” on the fiscal compact later this spring or else.

From a report from Ireland’s largest stockbroker comes the following:

A No vote would cast doubt over Ireland’s commitment to the euro and could trigger a ratings downgrade which would destroy our chances of returning to the bond market for the foreseeable future, he added. Yields on Irish bonds are likely to rise ahead of the vote, which will be held some time this year.  Bond yields would rise sharply if the people were to vote No but fall if the people were to vote Yes.

The gauntlet has been laid down — I expect this refrain to become a steady drumbeat in advance of the referendum.