Would it be Dumb to Hold a Referendum?
Deaglán de Bréadún
Enda Kenny faces a major decision in the near future. Should he put the forthcoming European fiscal treaty to popular vote in a referendum or not? Here are some of my own thoughts on the matter, from today’s newspaper. Tell me what you think:-
If they ever make a film about Enda Kenny, who would play the leading role? There must be an actor who can bring our Taoiseach to life on screen, as Meryl Streep is doing with Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
For those who haven’t yet seen the movie, the former British prime minister is shown mainly in dementia-ridden old age, holding imaginary conversations with her late husband, Denis.
It’s odd to feel sorry for such a ruthless politician, but the device is a cruel one, especially since the subject is still living. Presumably it is intended to give a new twist to Thatcher’s life story, since her biographical details are so widely known.
The market for a film about the life of a contemporary Irish politician would be limited, but it could be an arthouse success.
Although Colm Meaney backed Martin McGuinness for the presidency, he would do a good job as Kenny, but he would need to apply a bottle of peroxide to his hair. Likewise, Brendan Gleeson shows in The Guard that, despite his Dublin background, he has a talent for west of Ireland roles.
One is told that, in some British cinemas, cheering breaks out when Thatcher orders the sinking of the Belgrano , with the loss of 323 lives, during the Falklands war with Argentina. Charlie Haughey’s rejection of that harsh action was one of the few times he had a national consensus behind him.
There isn’t a lot to cheer about just yet in the narrative of Enda Kenny’s term as head of government. He has the misfortune to be in power at a time when, as Financial Times journalist Philip Stephens put it this week, “presidents and prime ministers more closely resemble victims than masters”.
Kenny has some major difficulties to overcome, especially on the European stage. In his time, Éamon de Valera negotiated a neutral path between Britain and Germany, and there are some parallels with the course Enda Kenny is pursuing nowadays, although the Germans, thankfully, have a different form of government nowadays.
The Taoiseach has to keep London and David Cameron sweet while at the same time be seen to dance vigorously to the tune of our EU paymasters. It is no easy task.
The normally ebullient Kenny was unusually subdued at the recent British-Irish Council summit in Dublin Castle and a study in low-key neutrality at the press conference afterwards.
Small wonder he was minding his Ps and Qs. He had UK deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, sitting on his right and Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, to his left. Only a few hours earlier on Morning Ireland , Salmond had accused the Cameron-Clegg government of “bullying” over the referendum on devolution and Scottish independence.
Questioned as to whether he believed Scotland should take its place among the nations of the Earth, Kenny was masterful in his hands-off, nothing-to-do-with-me-guv disengagement. It was reminiscent of a Mayo supporter watching a Gaelic football match between Dublin and Meath.
Yet Scottish independence would have huge implications for this island. Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson spelled out in detail the concern felt among the unionist population in the North at the prospect of their Caledonian cousins cutting loose from the mother ship.
With the population trend north of the Border moving in favour of the nationalists, Robinson’s concern is understandable. A smaller United Kingdom without the Scottish dimension would be, to adapt David Trimble’s famous phrase, a cold house for Northern Ireland unionists.
Perhaps Scotland will not opt for full independence but it is certainly moving to a different place politically.
Alex Salmond quoted our own Charles Stewart Parnell: “No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation.”
There is a bust of Parnell in the “Garden Room” of Leinster House. Now there was a man whose career was full of high drama, but a biopic starring Clark Gable proved a flop.
Parnell would have understood the political context in which Alex Salmond is operating (as well as smiling perhaps at being quoted in Dublin Castle), but what would he have made of the circumstances in which Enda Kenny finds himself? The entire fabric of the State has been put in jeopardy by the banking crisis and the property bubble, and our hard-won sovereignty lies in the balance. And to think Scotland used to regard us as a role model.
As the prospect of a restrictive fiscal compact looms at European level, Kenny must decide, with the advice of the Attorney General, whether or not to have a referendum on Irish participation in the new set-up.
The late Kader Asmal, the Trinity College Dublin lecturer who applied the lessons of Irish history to ending the apartheid regime in South Africa, liked to say that “law is nothing more than congealed politics”. Referendums are a fascinating crossroads between the legal and political.
Judging from an RTÉ report during the week, Brussels is getting impatient to know the Government’s intentions on the fiscal treaty: will it be put to popular vote in Ireland?
There is a school of thought that a referendum should be held, even if it is not deemed necessary in legal terms. The purpose would be to ensure popular consent for the proposals. Given the caution in our political culture, that seems an unlikely decision.
Alex Salmond, on the other hand, is gung-ho for a referendum in Scotland. If the Taoiseach chose to consult the voters, regardless of the legal advice, it would make for great drama and would certainly feature in the script for Enda: The Movie .
There is something of a mood-change going on at the moment. The message that austerity isn’t working is beginning to gain traction.
Meanwhile, the Coalition is looking more and more like its predecessor every day. A European referendum could be just the opportunity people are seeking to send a shot across the bows of the Government.