Thursday, June 25, 2009
Seamus Heaney has raised the debate on the Lisbon treaty.............the Guardian
It takes an Irish poet to remind us of the grandeur of the European project
Seamus Heaney has raised the debate on the Lisbon treaty. A yes vote would be good for Ireland and the EU – and Iran, too
o Timothy Garton Ash
o guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 June 2009 20.30 BST
o Article history
'It was the bard wot won it." Will that be the historians' judgment on Ireland's second referendum on the Lisbon treaty, planned for early October? Will the future of Europe be decided by the voice of a poet?
In a rare and moving intervention, Ireland's greatest living poet, Seamus Heaney, has come out plainly for a yes to the Lisbon treaty and raised the whole debate to a different level. Recalling a memorable evening five years ago in Dublin's Phoenix Park when Ireland's EU presidency welcomed 10 new nations into the union, Heaney observes: "Phoenix renewed itself, just as the Union was renewing itself and continues to need to renew itself." Before reading aloud the poem (Beacons at Bealtaine) he wrote on that occasion, Heaney says, in a video clip recorded for last weekend's launch of the new Ireland for Europe campaign: "There are many reasons for ratifying the Lisbon treaty, reasons to do with our political and economic wellbeing, but the poem speaks mainly for our honour and identity as Europeans." And then he reads his verse, which includes this great line: "Move lips, move minds and make new meanings flare."
This is not the kind of language we usually associate with the European debate, more's the pity. Yet even if poets are Shelley's "unacknowledged legislators", especially in romantic fatherlands like Ireland and Poland, base material concerns will also play a large part. I am told here that the economic crisis, which has hit Ireland especially hard, seems to be one of the main reasons that public opinion has swung round in favour of the Lisbon treaty. Tough as things are, the general feeling is that it would have been even worse if Ireland had not been in the EU and the eurozone. "Ireland can't fight global economic forces on its own; in this financial storm, the EU is Ireland's safe harbour", is how Generation Yes, a campaign organised by young Irish pro-Europeans, puts the argument on its website.
In addition, the Irish government has now secured cast iron assurances on many of the popular concerns that fed into last year's no vote: the spectres of conscription and abortion, the ring-fencing of Irish neutrality and the country's ability to set competitive tax rates, not to mention the fact that Ireland, along with all other member states, will retain its European commissioner. Unlike last time, it looks as if there will now be a well-organised nationwide, non-party yes campaign. Next to the Fianna Fáil government, the main opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, will also push for yes.
Meanwhile Libertas, the vanguard of the 2008 no campaign, has collapsed in disarray. (An Irish associate contacted its leader Declan Ganley on my behalf to ask if we could meet to discuss the new referendum, but was told that Ganley is now concentrating on his business interests.) Beside a strange alliance of anti-capitalist hard left and anti-abortion Catholic right, Sinn Féin seems set to hold out against the treaty, with arguments about sovereignty and independence that bear a striking resemblance to those of the British Conservative party.
"It gives the EU too much power and reduces our ability to stop decisions that are not in Ireland's interests," said Sinn Féin's 2008 alternative guide to the Lisbon treaty. "It gives 105 additional powers to the EU on issues such as international relations, security, trade and economic policy. And in more than 60 of these areas we will lose our right to stop laws not in our national interest." Replace "Ireland" with "Britain" and reprint at Conservative central office. Surely Gerry Adams and David Cameron should campaign together.
Yet the organisers of the fledgling yes campaign are far from complacent. This year, as last, the campaign could suffer from association with a rather tired and unpopular government, and an uncharismatic prime minister. In zealous observance of a controversial supreme court ruling, television and radio almost religiously give equal airtime to the yes and no sides. Moreover, Irish voters have a very understandable allergy to being bullied by the rest of Europe into giving the "right" answer. So we, their fellow Europeans, have to be careful what we say and how we say it – perhaps especially if we speak with a British accent.
To be clear: what the Irish decide is entirely up to the Irish. They have as much right to say no as the French did, and Nicolas Sarkozy should stop threatening them with dire consequences if they do. Nonetheless, I hope they will say yes. It takes an Irish poet to remind us of the essential grandeur of this project we call the European Union, where nations born in so much blood work together freely in a commonwealth of democracies. It takes only a stroll round the centre of Dublin to remind you of the lived reality behind those large phrases, with the Polish food shop (Samo Dobro) sitting cheek by jowl with the Irish pub (The Metro, established 1861) on Parnell Street, and with young Irish, Brits and Poles working and living together on entirely equal terms – and taking this for the most normal thing in the world. A prose of everyday life almost as moving as the poetry.
Less immediately visible is the wider context: an increasingly non-European world, shaped by rising powers like China and global threats like climate change, where even the largest European states can only hope to make a difference if we all combine forces and work together. Take Iran, for instance. I have of course been watching the television footage of the repression in Tehran: those bloody individual martyrdoms once so familiar to the streets of Dublin but now only recalled here in monuments and plaques. There, as once here, a terrible beauty is born.
I have wished I was there to bear witness. I have wondered if I could possibly write about anything else. But the truth is that there is relatively little that Europe can do in the short term to affect the outcome in Iran, beyond keeping open those channels of communication, such as the BBC Persian service, through which Iranians can talk to Iranians. Yet looking to the longer term, to write about the future of the European Union is also to write about the future of Iran. For the most important thing the Lisbon treaty does is to create the institutional machinery for a better co-ordinated and more effective European foreign policy. The machinery – not the thing itself. That requires the political will of sovereign member states.
In the longer run, this will also make a difference to Iran. At the moment, the European Union's response to the Iranian drama has been fairly well co-ordinated, though even now there have been some differences of public emphasis between Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Behind the scenes there are deeper differences of approach. These are likely to become acute if the repression continues. And this Iranian regime, with its back to the wall, will redouble its efforts to drive wedges between, say, evil Brits and potentially more "co-operative" Germans, or at least to reduce us to a feeble policy of the lowest common multiple. We cannot allow this to happen. For Iran's sake, too, phoenix must renew itself.