By Fintan O’Toole (for the Irish Times)
You get a call from a solicitor - let’s call her Angela. She summons you to her office. She shows you the penalty clause of a contract, the one that specifies the punishments you’ll face if you break the terms.
She tells you to sign it right now or you’ll be in big trouble. “But,” you ask, “where’s the rest of the contract?” “We’re still working on it. It’s none of your business. Just sign here.”
This is a pretty good analogy for the absurd situation we’re in with the fiscal treaty. The treaty, as practically everyone now acknowledges, is not the new political contract that will get the European Union out of a potentially terminal crisis. It is just the penalty clause. It makes no sense unless and until we know what the deal itself will be. Asking us to sign it before we know what the rest of the contract contains is an act of utter contempt.
In the face of such contempt, the only rational course for the Irish people is to fall back on their considerable resources of evasion, equivocation and circumvention. The hour for our artful dodgery has come at last.
In 1066 And All That, WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman remark that whenever the English thought they had an answer to the Irish question, the Irish would change the question. In the context of Anglo-Irish relations, the joke is rather facetious. But when it comes to Europe, changing the question is actually well-established Irish practice. We’ve done it twice, with the Nice treaty in 2001-2002 and with the Lisbon treaty in 2008-2009.
Given the choice between Yes and No, we’ve voted “No but yeah”: go away, come back to us, ask a somewhat different question, and we’ll say Yes.
These are not among the more glorious episodes in Irish democracy. They epitomise the slitheriness of so much of our political culture. But maybe this is the time to embrace our slithery side. Maybe “No but yeah” is actually a more honest and meaningful response to the insulting absurdity with which we’re faced than any other option we’re being given.
The obvious thing for the Government to have done was to postpone the referendum, because the European crisis makes its meaning utterly fluid. (With its huge majority, it could have pushed through legislation to allow it to do so in a matter of days.) This would not even have been particularly brave.
Not only is France refusing to sign the treaty “as it stands”, but even Germany has had to postpone ratification. The Government, however, is so terrified of deviating one inch from the path of perceived righteousness that it is pressing robotically onwards.
This leaves the electorate in a dilemma. The Yes and No options don’t come close to expressing public opinion. A majority of voters, I would guess, are actually in one of two camps: (a) Yes, because there is no choice; (b) No, but ask us again when you’ve got the growth strategy worked out.
The first of these - we have to do it - is actually not a reason to vote Yes, it’s a reason to spoil one’s vote. If there is no choice, a referendum is a charade. It is a parody of democracy. The only way to salvage some small sense of civic dignity would be a mass spoiling of votes.
The second option is “No, but . . .” It acknowledges there might be a context in which the fiscal treaty actually makes sense.
If, for example, there were a serious commitment to long-term European investment in growth, that would change the Irish budgetary arithmetic quite radically.
So would a proper European banking resolution that would take the massive cost of bailing out banks off the backs of the citizens. But we simply don’t know whether, or to what extent, the re-emergence of the crisis will force such serious changes of strategy.
What makes “No, but . . .” a perfectly respectable option this time is that we might have to vote again even if we vote Yes. We’re told the addition of a protocol on growth would have no effect on the treaty, so there’d be no need for another vote.
However, this makes no economic sense: a meaningful growth strategy would have to have huge implications for fiscal policy.
It also makes no legal sense: we were told after the last two referendums that the addition of new protocols was such a big deal that it changed the question and legitimised the holding of a second vote.
So are we now to say that new protocols require a new vote when the people have voted No, but not when they’ve voted Yes? A No vote with an implied invitation to come back when the bigger picture is visible may be the most honest response to the demand that we make a decision in ignorance.
It would also be a responsible act of European citizenship, encouraging the change of direction without which the EU will destroy itself.
Changing the question is an Irish speciality that now happens to be, for Europe, a vital necessity.