Taoiseach resigns in the middle of referendum campaign – April’s fool?

, by Mette Moerk Andersen

Taoiseach resigns in the middle of referendum campaign – April's fool?

People had to check their calendars. Surely, the first of April only occurs once a year. It was indeed April second when the Taoiseach announced the sixth of May as the date of his resignation. This left the political scene in Ireland in a state of upheaval, and for good reason. It is not every day that a Taoiseach decides to step down, certainly not one who can claim three consecutive re-elections as leader of Ireland and is in the midst of a referendum campaign.

After all, only one other Taoiseach can boast three successful re-elections - the founding father of the modern republic of Ireland, Éamon de Valera.

Implications for the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty

Where does Bertie Ahern’s resignation leave the referendum? The referendum is still taking place. After the opposition called for postponing the referendum until autumn and even for a general election, the Taoiseach stated that 12 June was ’probably the most appropriate date’.

People involved in the campaign on both the yes- and the no-sides of the divide have been preparing for a take off for months. The initial insecure assertions, designed to test the other sides’ case, have been put forward and developed into more stable arguments. These arguments show that it is an Ireland in transition that is voting in the coming referendum but is still holding on to a well-known issue, neutrality.

Relevant domestic issues

The Taoiseach’s resignation does not seem to harm the yes-side, on the contrary.

The Irish electorate and political actors focus a great deal more on financial issues and issues relating to a welfare state in this year’s referendum compared to previous referenda. It is clear that the (constantly changing) economic forecasts presented to the Irish people this year reveal changing times ahead – and the Irish know it! What they need are political leaders showing leadership to tackle the issues regarding for instance the poor state of the health services, the undeveloped infrastructure and the largest number of unemployed people since 1999.

Will these domestic issues play a part in the June referendum? Domestic issues certainly played a part in France, in the Netherlands and in Denmark when they rejected different treaties, so why would the Irish people be any different? Bertie Ahern mentioned the EU and the referendum in his announcement on 2 April. This indicates that he was fully aware that investigations into his financial affairs could have been motivation to vote “No” in the referendum. (One could boldly argue that being part of the EU has helped clean up political corruption and motivated investigations of corruption in Ireland.)

Now, at least there is one less domestic issue to vote on in the referendum. The Taoiseach’s resignation does not seem to harm the yes-side, on the contrary. The Minister of Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Dick Roche have been the most prominent and dominant actors of the government so far in the referendum campaign. They are now left with one less question to answer when campaigning.

It is only fair to say that the Irish political actors as well as the parts of the electorate engaging in this campaign are certainly focusing on what membership of the EU and hence European issues mean to Ireland. The debate is indeed on the EU and Ireland’s role in a future Europe – which is a comfort when they are the only ones to vote.

Image: Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern at Fermoy to unveil Memorial wall of WWI ; source: Flickr

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