In the past few days, Libertas have started putting up a new poster, eschewing their pastel blues and ballot boxes from the last campaign in favour of apocalyptic skies, crying children and the death of democracy. While I'm going to assume all of you are knowledgeable enough about the Lisbon Treaty to know that it won't signal the end of Irish democracy, what I'd actually like to take issue with is the startling lack of knowledge of the history of democracy in Ireland that Libertas are displaying. Democracy in Ireland didn't, as the poster suggest, suddenly appear on the scene in 1916. In fact, we didn't even have an elected parliament in 1916, and the roots of Irish democracy go back much further.
The first recorded meeting of the earliest Irish Parliament was on 18 June 1264 in Castledermot, County Kildare, and the Parliament of Ireland was then officially established in 1297. Admittedly the franchise for elections was extremely limited in these early days, but this was the case for any democratic system that developed during the middle ages. Although the parliament had a large degree of independence from the English Parliament and British Monarch originally, the act known as Poynings' Law severely restricted the powers of the Parliament of Ireland in 1494, giving the King and English Parliament effectively complete control over it.
The trend towards English consolidation of power in Ireland was temporarily reversed when, in 1782, Irish politicians led by Henry Grattan managed to have Poynings' Law and many other restrictions on the Irish Parliament reversed, after which it went through a period known as 'Grattan's Parliament'. The parliament at this stage had more autonomy than at any time before, and extended the vote to the Catholic majority in 1792. The Act of Union in 1800, however, abolished the Irish Parliament after this brief period of legislative freedom, and for more than a century the only Parliament with power over Ireland was to be the one in Westminster.
Despite campaigns by men such as Daniel O'Connell throughout the 19th century, it was not until 1919 that a parliament sat in Ireland again. Following the 1918 Westminster elections, the 73 MPs elected for Sinn Fein unilaterally founded the first Dáil Eireann, and ratified a declaration of independence on its first sitting on 21 January 1919. Although the Dáil wasn't officially recognised, and in fact declared illegal by the British government, it managed to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the establishment of the Irish Free State.
The Irish Free State was established in 1922, with a Dáil and Seanad elected by proportional representation, and an 'Executive Council' chosen by the Dáil. The Constitution of the Irish Free State also provided a range of measures for direct democracy, such as constitutional amendment by referendum and a citizens' initiative, although these were never actually used. It was on 1 July 1937 that the first ever referendum was held in Ireland, where the voters approved the Constitution of Ireland, as proposed by the government of Eamon de Valera. The modern constitution, which severed the relationship to Britain and the Commonwealth, kept the Dail and Seanad in largely similar form, introduced a directly elected President, and could only be amended by means of referendum, which has since happened 21 times.
So, while looking for a date for the 'birth' of Irish democracy, Libertas could have chosen 1264, 1297, 1782, 1919, 1922 or 1937, all important years in the progression towards our current democratic society. In comparison to these dates, 1916, while an important step towards Irish independence, wasn't actually a turning point in Irish democracy, with democracy in various forms having existed in Ireland since more than 650 years beforehand, and the subsequent return to national democracy occurring 3 years later. If Libertas wish to claim themselves defenders of Irish democratic traditions, it might help if they took the time to learn what those traditions were in the first place.
Understandably there is much confusion surrounding the Lisbon treaty. This I believe is mainly due to debaters from both sides failure to publicly differentiate between their opinion and facts. For instance arguments along the lines of 'Lisbon will be good for the Irish economy' are opinion, not established facts and so can be disputed, after all everyone is entitled to their own opinion. However everyone is not entitled to their own facts so when selecting my 10 reasons to vote yes I decided to stick to the facts and to only give my opinion as to why they are good.
1. Increase of power to the European Parliament
The European Parliament is the only directly elected body of the EU and as such is the most democratic; the Treaty of Lisbon will increase the power of the European Parliament. The parliament currently votes on only 80% legislation, the Treaty of Lisbon increases this to 95%; this is known as the ordinary legislative procedure.[Many Articles, TFEU] The parliament currently only approves 20% of the budget; this will be increased to 100%.[Article 314, TFEU]
2. Permanent President of the European Council [Article 15, TEU]
The current system for President of the European Council rotates between states every six months. The head of government of each state fills the roll; this can cause the President to push his/her countries national agenda often against the will of other states. The Lisbon treaty replaces this system with a more permanent position elected by the European council for a two and a half year term. The new President will be obligated to do what is best for everyone not just one individual state and will act on direction from the European Council. The president has no formal powers beyond co-ordinating the affairs of the European Council.
3. The Council will meet in the open [Article 16, TEU]
At present the Council of Ministers meets behind closed doors. This arouses suspicion in the public as they do not get to see how deals are reached. Under the Lisbon treaty the Councils must meet in the open when deliberating on draft legislative acts providing valuable transparency. Hopefully this will have the added benefit of engaging the public conscious, giving greater insight to EU affairs and raising the level of knowledge.
4. New powers of oversight for national parliaments [Article 12, TEU]
National parliaments are to be provided with all draft legislation and other documents produced by the Commission at the same time as they are provided to the Council of ministers and the European Parliament. There will be a period of 8 weeks before any decision can be taken by the Council and EP to allow national parliaments to provide input. They must also be provided with the Councils agendas and decisions. This enables the parliamentary opposition a chance confront the government on its activities at the EU.
5. More clearly defines the competences of the Union & Enshrines the principal of subsidiarity [Article 5, TEU]
The treaty for the first time clearly defines and sets limits on the competences held by the European Union. Under the principle of conferral only those competencies explicitly conferred by the member states in the treaties can be dealt with at EU level. All other areas are off limits and remain under the sole jurisdiction of the national governments e.g. family law (abortion, divorce), direct tax (corporate tax, income tax).
The treaty introduces the principle of subsidiarity. This means that legislation which falls under the competence of both the EU and national governments will only be enacted at EU level if individual states can’t do so as efficiently or effectively on their own. The national parliaments will be able to interject if it is felt that any legislative proposal does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity. If 1/3 of national parliaments do so the proposal has to be reviewed (1/4 for proposals in the area of Justice & Policing).
6. Introduces simplified revision procedure [Article 47, TEU]
The treaty introduces a new simpler method of amending the treaties in areas of internal EU policy (i.e. concerning the functioning of the EU’s institutions). This method allows for individual amendments to be passed separately without the need to hold an Intergovernmental Conference and draft an entire new international treaty, which is extremely time consuming and expensive. The new procedure still requires the amendments to be ratified by each nation in accordance with their constitutional requirements, which still will require a referendum in this country if it’s not compatible with our constitution. Hopefully this will cut down the complexity of future EU referenda as rather than having to vote on a huge number of changes at once, it will enable us to vote on individual treaty amendments. The simplified revision procedure cannot be used to increase the competences of the EU that will still require a entire new treaty.
7. Increases the Unions foreign policy ability
The Treaty creates a new role known as the ‘High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs’ [Article 18, TEU]. It merges many existing positions including the 'High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy' and the 'European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy' into one position. This is to provide a more coherent and consistent voice for Europe in the international sphere. Currently there are so many people representing the foreign policy of the EU, foreign governments are confused about who to contact in regards to specific areas and the unions’ voice is disjointed and less coherent. The Lisbon treaty also creates an EU diplomatic corps know as the External Action Service to better facilitate the EU’s foreign policy.[Article 27, TEU]
8. Creates new Citizens Initiative [Article 11, TEU]
The Treaty creates a new avenue for citizens from across the EU to have their voice heard. An initiative requires one million signatures (0.2% of the EU’s population) and then the Commission will, if it is within its competence and in keeping with the treaties, draft legislation for consideration by the Council and the Parliament. The Commission can only draft legislation if the initiative is within the competence of the EU and is fully compatible with the treaties, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The legislation will then have to be passed by the ordinary legislative procedure in both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament for it to become a directive.
9. Charter of Fundamental Rights becomes legally binding [Article 6, TEU]
For the first time all EU legislation will have to be legally compatible with a charter protecting the fundamental rights of EU citizens. The CFR will apply to all EU directives and national legislation which implements EU directives. It will not apply to legislation instigated by national legislatures i.e. all non-EU Irish Law. The CFR does not expand or create new areas of competencies for the EU. It only binds EU from enacting legislation which is contrary to the fundamental rights laid down.
10. Energy and the Environment become greater EU competencies [Article 4 & 194, TFEU]
Ireland has a minuscule amount of power and influence in these areas. The EU can provide better legislation and act more effectively for our benefit than we can on our own. Russia, Europe’s main gas supplier consistently takes advantage of the divided energy market, playing one country against another, cutting off supplies and effectively bullying individual states. Russia will have a much more difficult time if it faces a united EU energy policy, the EU will be the one dictating the terms. The treaty also affirms that combating climate change is a major objective of the Union, which was actually negotiated for by the Irish delegation.
All references refer to the consolidated treaties as amended by Lisbon which can be found here.
*TEU = Treaty on European Union
*TFEU = Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union