The Referendum: It doesn’t matter whether you vote… what matters is whether you're willing to resist their austerity


The government parties are billing it as the ‘Stability Treaty’, the left opposition – most notably the United Left Alliance – are calling it the ‘Austerity Treaty’. For the next few weeks we can expect the airwaves to be clogged with the pros and cons in the lead-up to the 31stMay referendum on the “Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union” to give it its official title.

But despite all that we will hear between now and the end of the month, does anyone seriously think that how we vote will make one whit of difference?

If the ‘Austerity Treaty’ is rejected, will the government accept that its policy of heaping more and more austerity and cuts on the shoulders of ordinary workers and the unemployed is wrong? Will they accept that the household tax, the water tax, the Universal Social Charge, the pension levy, pay cuts etc should be reversed and that instead a wealth and assets tax should be introduced?

On the other hand if the ‘Stability Treaty’ is accepted, can we expect a prolonged period of stability to follow? Will the all-powerful financial markets accept that they have got their pound of flesh, and will they signal their willingness to work for ‘stability’ and accept that the Irish taxpayer has no more to give?

Or will pigs fly?

You don’t need to be much of a genius to work out that the last of the 3 scenarios is actually the more likely to occur.

All sides know that the result of this referendum will make little or no difference to anything. 

On the government (and Fianna Fáil, IBEC etc.) side, they’ve already admitted that the result of the Irish vote is irrelevant as the treaty only needs to be ratified by 12 EU members states to proceed. But they are desperate to prove their credentials as ‘good Europeans’. All the posters - ‘For a Working Ireland - , ‘Secure Ireland’s Future -, ‘For Investment, Stability, Recovery –‘ or Labour’s basic ‘It’s about stability –‘ are predicated on “sending a positive signal to potential investors” (as IBEC’s Danny McCoy put it).

It’s a bit like ‘Don’t annoy the wolf and he mightn’t attack us any more’. But we’ve spent the last 4 years appeasing the wolf of the financial markets – giving him everything he wants - and the reality is when we give him this bit of flesh, he’s going to come back for even more. Those that are putting up the posters and trotting out the slogans know that they have just as much relevance as their infamous ‘Lisbon: Vote Yes for Jobs’ (remember those lovely posters??)

Nobody advocating a Yes vote has a single positive thing to say about this treaty. The best they can say is that things will be bad anyway but will be worse if we vote no. On just the second morning of campaigning Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, has ‘warned’ that a No vote will result in a “dramatically more difficult budget”. And as the campaign continues we can expect more of the same with dire threats that ‘we’ won’t be able to ‘return to the markets’, won’t ‘have access to a second bailout’ etc etc. 

All of which ignores (deliberately) the fact that the Irish banking system was ‘bailed out’ (lent more money that the taxpayer was going to pay back) in order to save the European banking system. And if it’s necessary to do that again, it’ll be done again – it’s a surefire bet.

We can expect over the next few weeks – especially because they know that their message of ‘trust us and vote yes’ is not going down too well with people – all sorts of threats and dire warnings from pro-treaty forces about not having money to pay social welfare, the ATMs drying up etc. etc. But none of it is true, it’s an attempt to bully us into rolling over and taking more pain ‘in the national interest’ – except that those who benefit from ‘the national interest’ don’t have to take any pain.

Bloody nose
When you see the range of forces lined up advocating a Yes, it’s tempting to want to give them a bloody nose, to reject their sanctimonious lecturing about how we should ‘do the right thing’. And that’s exactly what we should do. But the question is – can we do that by casting a No vote. 

Practically all of those advocating a No vote would agree with the contention that you can’t defeat austerity by voting it down, that even delivering a majority No vote won’t bring an end to the austerity agenda either here or in Europe. But they argue, as Paul Murphy Socialist Party MEP has done that a no vote will “strike a blow against the austerity policies of the Troika and European establishment.” They contend that it is important to vote no because “A rejection of the Treaty by the Irish people would be a recognition that austerity is causing havoc across Europe and a powerful demand for a change of course.” (Joe Higgins TD).

It is of course only fair to point out that the calls for a No vote (from most of the ULA at least) are almost always accompanied by the recognition that a No vote must be accompanied by “struggle in the streets and workplaces by workers across Europe…” (Paul Murphy again). 

But a huge gap exists between the rhetoric of advocating ‘struggle in the streets’ and the ground on which the referendum debate is taking place. The opportunities for advocating struggle and fightback on RTE soundbites or on debates on TV3 are limited in the extreme. Even in written material most of the time is taken up with having to put forward detailed arguments about ‘balanced budgets’, ‘structural deficits’, and even whether or not ‘we’ would get a ‘second bailout’ if ‘we’ need one. The bit about needing ‘struggle in the street’ is lucky to get a one or two line tag on at the end.

The problem is that once socialists begin to engage in debate on this level, we are conceding that that is how politics is done – that it’s all about engaging in nice debate and trying to win over the middle ground. And once people begin to participate in that debate the language used, the arguments put forward all become quite ‘middle ground’ as well. They have to in order to be allowed into the space that the media has dictated that the ‘debate’ is going to take place in.

Thus socialists find themselves being as milk-and-watery as the other side in the debate. Richard Boyd Barrett, ULA TD says in one piece, for example, that “…a No vote [is] a vote for prioritising job creation, public services and fairness ahead of bail-outs for banker and speculators…” It’s a statement that’s got no more credibility than the Fine Gael one that says a Yes vote will bring “investment, stability and recovery”.

In reality the whole argument about this referendum can be summed up in two short sentences:-

  • A yes vote will be used by the government as a justification for austerity but a no vote will not be accepted by them as a rejection of austerity, austerity will continue whatever way we vote.
  • It doesn’t matter how you vote… what matters is whether you're willing to resist their austerity.

The referendum cannot be divorced from the political circumstances and climate in which it takes place. Over the past couple of months, in communities right across Ireland the people in approximately a million households have delivered a resounding No to the austerity agenda by refusing to register for the household tax. When this household tax is followed by the water tax and the property tax, people will again deliver their judgement.

And that judgement will not be able to be ignored by the government or by the Troika. If we collectively refuse to pay the water tax and build a campaign to support each other, they can’t enforce it on us. We can make if unenforceable and uncollectible and we can in the process build new strengths and solidarities in our communities.

Increasingly, as a result of the confidence gained through involvement in this important battle, people are beginning to realise that we don’t have to accept the government’s austerity agenda and that it is possible to organise to fight back.

This referendum is at best a distraction from that organising. Worse, there is a danger that some people will vote no and canvass for a no vote in the belief that it can have an impact. In the scenario where a majority No is delivered and the austerity agenda continues, those people could become disillusioned and instead of taking a further step towards questioning the way in which society is governed may instead decide that there is no point.

There is another inherent danger in giving the referendum any credence – and especially in referring to it as an ‘austerity referendum’. If the government puts a huge gun to people’s heads and its bullying and threatening succeeds in making a majority of people vote Yes, they will then be able to say ‘We’ve had a referendum on austerity and the people have voted in favour of it.’ It will embolden them to go on an even greater offensive and could again leave many people disillusioned.

There is an alternative for those who want to resist austerity and who want to bring about change. That alternative is to recognise the referendum for what it is – a no-win situation - and to refuse to engage with it. But instead to continue to organise opposition to the household tax, to the water tax, to social welfare cuts – to every aspect of the austerity agenda. And while engaged in organising that opposition to begin a conversation among ourselves about the way in which a society that we would be proud to hand on to our children and grandchildren should be run.

We need to re-forge a society where power and privilege is taken away from the elite and where community solidarity, equality and democracy are the watchwords. That’s a huge task but one we’re all well capable of taking on.

One thing’s for sure – voting in the referendum isn’t going to move us even a centimetre in the right direction.