Second time around Irish vote yes for Lisbon

On 2 October 2009, Ireland voted yes for the Lisbon Treaty by a margin of just over two (67.1%) to one (32.9%). One of the main areas of debate between the yes and no sides has been the perceived industrial relations impact of the treaty on pay and employment conditions. Ireland’s deep recession has clearly had an impact on the scale of the yes vote, following the original no vote in the first referendum, which took place in 2008.

In October 2009, the Lisbon Treaty was passed by Irish voters by a two-to-one majority – with Irish citizens voting in favour of the treaty by a final margin of 67.1% to 32.9%. This represents a 20.5% swing towards the yes side since the first Lisbon Treaty referendum, which was held in 2008. The country’s government, along with the main opposition parties, employers and most trade unions were all in the yes camp on this occasion. The no side consisted of a variety of groups, including some trade unions. Opponents of the Lisbon Treaty raised a wide variety of objections – including with regard to neutrality, abortion and the perceived impact on workers’ rights.

Debate on workers’ rights

One of the big issues for debate was the perceived impact of the Lisbon Treaty on workers’ rights. Trade unions and other supporters on the yes side argued that the treaty – and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union contained within – could potentially provide a boost to workers’ rights in Ireland if ratified, including with regard to collective bargaining provisions. They also pointed out that the vast majority of employment rights in Ireland had emanated from Europe.

However, the no side disagreed with this argument: for instance, they pointed to what they saw as the negative impact on workers’ rights of the recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) judgments, including the Laval case. Some claims on the no side were considered rather sensationalist: for example, Cóir, a campaign group set up to protect Irish sovereignty and oppose an EU federalist super state, claimed that, if the Lisbon Treaty was ratified, the Irish minimum wage would be reduced to €1.84 an hour; the group widely distributed posters making this claim.

The government responded that the claim regarding the minimum wage made by some of the no campaigners was one of the biggest misrepresentations about the Lisbon Treaty. Meanwhile, the General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), David Begg, said that there was no basis whatsoever for claims that the Irish minimum wage was under threat from the EU.

Reactions to result

Reactions to the yes vote were mixed. On the yes side, Ireland’s Prime Minister (Taoiseach), Brian Cowen, remarked that ‘it is a good day for Ireland and it is a good day for Europe’. The Taoiseach said that with this result, Ireland had indicated to other countries in Europe that it seeks to move forward together. The leader of the Labour Party, Eamon Gilmore, described the yes vote as a sensible, necessary move that had been achieved despite the government’s unpopularity. Elsewhere, the Director General of the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC), Danny McCoy, stated that the vote ‘will lead to an EU that is better able to face the challenges ahead and reaffirms Ireland’s long-standing, positive and constructive role in Europe’. For its part, the ICTU was pleased with the result, having emphasised that the right to collective bargaining remained a primary concern for the Irish trade union movement.

On the no side, Socialist Party member of parliament (MEP) Joe Higgins conceded that while the Lisbon Treaty had been endorsed by the Irish public, the no campaign had nevertheless performed well. The President of the Sinn Féin party, Gerry Adams, insisted that the Irish political establishment had ignored the decision of Irish voters after the first Lisbon Treaty referendum and that they would eventually regret ignoring the views of the no voters. A spokesperson for Cóir, Richard Greene, stated that the battle will continue, adding that wages and working conditions would be diminished as a result of the treaty’s ratification.


Ireland’s economic climate has clearly changed significantly since the country held its first referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. On the occasion of the second referendum, the Irish economy had already entered into a deep recession, with unemployment rising above 12% in the second half of 2009. The recession seems to have had some impact on the scale of the yes vote. To some extent at least, it appears that the benefits of EU membership – including significant EU funding, employment rights that might not otherwise exist, and the certainty and stability which EU membership provides – may have been underestimated or taken for granted in some quarters. However, it is possible that the seriousness of Ireland’s recession has increased the realisation of how important EU membership is and has been for the country. Given the historical resonance of Anglo-Irish relations, it is ironic that if Sinn Féin and other elements of the no camp in Ireland had succeeded in their no campaign, the result would have been welcomed by large parts of the right-wing political constituency in the United Kingdom (UK), assisting them in their anti-EU objectives.

Tony Dobbins, NUI Galway

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