Fiscal stability referendum: what it means for Ireland

Ireland is still reliant on European funding as it repairs its economy. What will happen if voters reject this treaty? EPA/Andy Rain

Later today (European time), Irish voters will be asked to vote Yes or No on the Treaty for Stability, Co-ordination and Governance.

The Yes campaign, lead by Ireland’s establishment parties, claim a No vote could risk European financial support for Ireland’s battered economy.

The No side, lead by a resurgent Sinn Fein, say the Treaty would entail a catastrophic loss of hard-won sovereignty for the Republic.

While the Yes side is nudging ahead in the polls, the Irish electorate is notoriously volatile and has voted against EU measures before.

The Conversation spoke with Professor Neil Collins of University College, Cork about the choices facing Irish voters.

Can you briefly explain what the referendum involves for Ireland?

Essentially, a “yes” in the referendum involves accepting European common fiscal disciplines and thus forgoing a certain degree of autonomy.

The benefit is supposed to be a strong currency and greater economic stability. The downside is that the so-called discipline translates into continuing austerity at least in the short term. Its a German solution to an Irish problem.

The Irish voted No the first time the Lisbon Treaty was proposed. It was put to the people again and they voted Yes. Would this measure be put forward again if there was a No vote?

In this case it won’t be put again, it can’t be put again.

But the reason for the second vote last time was that it was a European Union treaty, and a European Union treaty needs unanimity. This is an agreement between the states within the Eurozone, and as such only needs the majority, so the question won’t be put again.

What happens in terms of Ireland’s position and the support it gets from the European Union if the people do vote no? Some of the coverage is pitching this as an “Ireland must vote yes to survive” situation. Is that a fair representation?

There are a number of mechanisms for getting EU support (which Ireland currently does) and one of the mechanisms seems to necessitate passing the referendum, but there are other ways.

So if Ireland was in dire straits and we’d voted “No”, our European partners could find ways of helping us. In this particular, let’s call it an “arrangement”, you need to be in the group to access funds, if you are not in then you can’t, you don’t qualify to ask. If we were in a crisis and we weren’t a member of this, then there may well be other mechanisms of European solidarity that would help out but it would not be this particular mechanism.

On the political side, in Greece we are seeing parties like anti-austerity Syriza doing very very well. In Ireland, there’s talk about a double-edged sword where the major parties like Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are just so enormously discredited at the moment and you do have the anti-austerity parties like Sinn Fein and other left-wing groupings really gaining popularity. What role do you see for Sinn Fein and some of these left-wing parties on the No side and is there a genuine chance that the No side could get up?

The No side could win, it is possible, but the opinion polls tilt towards the Yes.

It is a good issue for Sinn Fein because they are leading the opposition on this. Fianna Fail is on the Yes side. So for Sinn Fein, it is a good opportunity.

The electorate is young. The average age of an Irish person as of last week I think was 36. Lots of us remember Sinn Fein being the party that supported killing and bombing, but younger voters don’t, so they have the luxury of thinking it’s just another party. A lot of my students are supporters of Sinn Fein because of the stances the party is taking now, they buy into the criticism [of the major parties].

Some have suggested that Ireland is the poster boy for austerity, that the medicine has been taken and it is working its way through. Is that true, or is there a feeling that there is a lot worse yet to come and that Ireland might be better off doing what Iceland did?

Ireland is a different place, Iceland is hardly in the conversation. The conversation is always with Greece and the mantra “we are not Greece”. People in Ireland realise that the state is highly dependent on direct foreign investment.

I was listening to the Irish news today and the lead item was about Hewlett Packard job cuts and people were wondering how that would affect Ireland as HP is a big employer there. The next item on news was about Apple, because Apple is big in Ireland also. The realisation that what foreigners think about us is very high up in the Irish psyche, that self image is important.

What is the difference between Ireland and Greece? For a while Ireland was held up as the example of the absolute boom and the absolute bust and now we find it could be a lot worse. If Greece is 10 out of 10 on badness where would you place Ireland?

I don’t think that you would put them on the same scale. I did some research on the Common Agricultural policy in Ireland and Greece. There was a lot of complaint from southern Mediterranean countries at the time that the northern countries including Ireland were better getting more of the European funds.

When I went to study in Greece, it was clear that one of the reasons was that Ireland had the infrastructure to claim the money and Greece simply didn’t. They didn’t have the research institutes, they didn’t have the agriculture boards, they didn’t have the loans and advisory structure that we had. And I think that this remains the case, Ireland is in a bad position now, but it is about a financial position.

Ireland remains a very strong country in lots of other ways and just because they are having a bad time with our “credit card” at the moment, it doesn’t mean we haven’t built the roads, attracted the investment, supported the education and all these other things.

Our governance infrastructure as such is relatively efficient compared to Greece - starting a business, connecting telephones, getting onto the internet, going before the court and defending your IP, these are all areas companies look to, in which in Ireland is very efficient and that is why so many companies set up there.

Is it correct to say that despite all of Ireland’s worries at the moment that if you look over, a 30 year time scale, the difference between now and where Ireland was in the 1980s it is still night and day on every possible measure?

Ireland is a very, very different place than it was those decades ago. On the whole, membership of the EU has been good for Ireland, materially anyway. The Irish people are doing some soul-searching at the moment about whether we have become too selfish or whether there are other values, religious, and social values that we might have neglected. What is also important is that there is no single voice for Europe.

In Australia you have a federal government here and your individual states are quite powerful and important. In Europe we don’t have any equivalent political figure. When Julia Gillard gets on a plane, and she goes off to Afghanistan or Chicago, she is there representing Australia.

Nobody speaks for Europe in those terms. Although we have got a President of the European Commission and President of the European Parliament, there is no directly elected person whose constituency is Europe.

So it is very difficult for us to get to a common position and all those people who go to European heads of government meetings that we have had loads of, they all fly back or go back by train to their capital cities and they all have to appear that they have won.

Barack Obama can talk to the American people, but nobody goes home to talk to the European people. So from the outside from Australia, from America, all those other places it is always going to seem chaotic. But under the surface, at another level there is much more solidarity then appears to be the case.