As the second Lisbon treaty referendum approaches, newly-emboldened activists have reawakened fears rooted in the country’s turbulent past
If you voted Yes to the Lisbon treaty, and were then killed by a bus before going to confession, would you be barred from entering heaven? Those Irish who find themselves similarly vexed in the run up to the country’s second referendum on the Lisbon treaty on October 2nd would have found reassurance in Bishop Noel Treanor’s statement on 16th September that a Catholic could, “without reserve and in good conscience,” vote Yes to Lisbon.
What was notable about this was not that a bishop felt the need to give moral instruction on a political issue—a long-established practice in Ireland, though more recently a neglected one—but that he was immediately opposed by the most ardent of his flock. The bishop had “misunderstood” the treaty, said the Catholic organisation, Cóir. Lisbon, they claim, will give the European Court of Justice the right to force Ireland to legalise abortion—a threat which they have leveraged not simply to mobilise the “pro-life” vote, but also to invoke a deep cultural aversion to interference from abroad.
Cóir’s rise to prominence in the Lisbon campaign marks the re-emergence of Ireland’s culture wars, a sport once hotly contested here, but largely forgotten during the boom years. During the 1980s these wars were defined by issues of Catholic sexual morality, and there was a cosy consensus between the bishops and lay groups like the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) on one side, against the secular, liberal tendencies of a Dublin political and media “elite” on the other.
But the Catholic lobby scored a series of spectacular own goals (not least with recurrent child abuse scandals) and, along with the country’s increasing wealth and confidence, these weakened its grip on the popular culture in the 1990s. Court judgments from the EU forced a liberalising of Irish laws, and the economic boom made materialism the new creed. Ardent pro-lifers like Youth Defence, a spin-off group of SPUC, continued to wave their foetus placards on O’Connell Street, but they were barely noticed by the young women flocking to the newly opened Ann Summers outlet across the road.
But with the economic meltdown, which began in 2008, and as unemployment edges towards 500,000 (in a workforce of around 2m), Cóir has gained a new foothold for Catholic reactionaries by pitching itself at those generally disaffected, rather than merely at the conservative base. Cóir, whose name means “justice” in Irish, and which describes itself as an organisation working “to protect Irish sovereignty,” has been one of the leading voices of the No campaign in this second referendum. Unheard of before last year’s first Lisbon vote, they share an office—and many activists—with Youth Defence. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, has called them a “front” for that organisation.
Cóir has pitched its anti-Lisbon message squarely at the mainstream of sceptical opinion, those who may no longer share Cóir’s passionate feelings about Catholic sexuality morality, but feel patronised and ignored by the Dublin government, and distrust their embrace of Europe. Their most striking poster features images of three of the leaders executed after 1916’s Easter uprising, proclaiming: “They won your freedom. Don’t throw it away.” Given that martyrdom is Ireland’s most potent motif, the appropriation of these patriots by a group suspected of being a single-issue lobby was always going to raise hackles. Not to mention that opposition to Lisbon aligns them with the extreme Eurosceptics of UKIP and even—perversely—the BNP, never previously noted for their support for Irish republicanism. Former prime minister Garret FitzGerald, both of whose parents participated in the uprising, duly reacted, describing Cóir and their posters as noxious, extremist and xenophobic.
But the Irish electorate, left reeling by the collapse in house prices, pension funds and employment, is in no mood for niceties of protocol. Worries that a Lisbon “yes” vote might force Ireland to legalise abortion will play a part in getting out the “no” vote, but, if they are successful in rejecting Lisbon, it will be due to a broader fear that they have stoked.
Some of Cóir’s posters are ostensibly about money: “€1.84 Minimum Wage After Lisbon?” one screeches, based on the misleading calculation of the average minimum wage in the EU “accession” countries. “Milked Dry!” shouts another: “€200 Billion Lost in Fisheries. Farming is next.” The real concern, however, is less about money, and more about control. During the first successful campaign against Lisbon last year, a common claim was that Europe would conscript our young people into a European army. These claims all amount to the same thing: Europe is coming after our jobs, our farms, our sons—our freedom. Even when Cóir does address their core issue, abortion, they do so in terms that echo this siege mentality: the threat is not abortion per se, but that this issue will be decided for us by a foreign court. This taps into fears deeply rooted in the national psyche that have been unleashed by the present crisis, of Ireland being taken over by (yet another) alien elite: first the British, then the “developers and bankers” who are responsible for our current predicament, and next Europe.
This is the new culture war. It is not explicitly Catholic, through the frontline troops are, for the moment. It is, rather, about the division between the “grassroots” and the establishment, between the people and the “elites.” It is, ultimately, between those who have given up on politics, whether in Dublin or Brussels, and those who insist that in giving up lies, precisely, the greatest danger.
Cóir’s efforts may not swing the vote on 2nd October—Lisbon is, simply, impossible to call. But this newly-emboldened guerrilla force of activists will remain a headache for Ireland’s hapless government as it faces a winter of discontent and a budget of unprecedented austerity. As many No lobbyists themselves might put it, Lisbon is just one battle—the war will go on.