Chickens came home to roost yesterday . . . with a vengeance

Sat, Jun 14, 2008, 01:00

So now it's plan C and that leaves Brian another 23 letters left in the alphabet, writes Miriam Lord at the count centre in Dublin Castle.

THEY DIDN'T see it coming, and they just didn't get it.

As the results from the Lisbon jury rolled in, the stunned reaction from the Irish political establishment said it all. From Government parties to the main Opposition, the sense of bewilderment was overwhelming.

How could the public do this? The elected representatives and their supporters simply couldn't understand it.

And therein lies their problem.

"I can't stick this. I'm going home," harrumphed a veteran Fianna Fáil party worker yesterday morning, less than two hours after the first box had been opened in the RDS.

She looked around her at the disparate band of cheering No campaigners - unlikely bedfellows, who, in normal times, wouldn't be caught dead in the same room together. The people they routinely rout at election time were celebrating to the far right of them and celebrating to the far left of them.

It was too much for some to stomach, and this made victory all the more sweet for the pro-lifers and the Sinn Féiners, the Socialist Workers and the Declan-Come-Latelys from Libertas.

Confusion before had given way to confusion after, with a thunderbolt of clarity in between.

They couldn't blame the turnout. They couldn't point to the narrowness of the margin of victory. They couldn't work it out.

Last year, the people who were chosen by 80 per cent of the electorate to represent them in the national parliament were sent packing with a flea in their ear when they asked those same people to put their trust in them again.

Yet, as they sank further into despondency, they couldn't yet bring themselves to ask the obvious question: Could it be something to do with us? Is our stock really that low? It is.

Less than an hour into the count, Dr Garret FitzGerald said it was curtains for the Yes campaign. And RTÉ radio's ten o'clock news bulletin provided little comfort.

"Early indications are the treaty may be in some difficulty," announced the newsreader, with delicious understatement.

In the Dublin count centre, the line-up of interested parties was all anyone needed to call a result. The dearth of Fianna Fáil deputies told its own story, while the glum expressions of the Fine Gael and Labour representatives sent spirits soaring in the No camp.

Strange times. Richard Green and Niamh Uí Bhríain of Cóir — the incarnation of Youth Defence - were in happy virgin territory, surrounded by news crews anxious to hear their opinions.

Before midday, Declan Ganley, founder of Libertas, arrived. He was the man of the moment, trailed all day by international news crews, getting the sort of treatment Gerry Adams used to enjoy before Northern Ireland dropped off the agenda.

Surrounded by his youthful retinue of campaigners, he was magnanimous in victory. "A great day for democracy across Europe" he said, his wife Delia by his side as the media clamoured to hear the secret of his success.

The rest of the No campaigners looked on sniffily, rather peeved that he, and his Libertas group, were getting the lion's share of the attention.

Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party hovered on the fringes. A photographer asked if he might step into a picture with his fellow No campaigner. Not a chance, indicated Joe, wrinkling his nose in disdain.

Ganley was whisked, somewhere in the middle of an excited scrum, upstairs to do an interview.

"This is a political earthquake!" declared Charlie Bird, to nobody in particular, as he passed. A woman campaigning for the preservation of Tara was handing out leaflets. "We delivered 300 No votes," she told a Fine Gaeler.

"If you ask Declan Ganley nicely, he'll buy if for you," he muttered, turning away in disgust. Ganley didn't stay long, but long enough not to rule out a future career in politics.

Coming up to lunchtime, Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan entered the building. He tried to give an interview, but his words were drowned out by cheering members of Cóir. He had to abandon it, as they sang and waved green "Éire go Bragh" flags and Irish scarves.

Chaotic scenes ensued as he tried to find a quieter place, but it was impossible. "Please! A bit of respect for your flag!" "We have respect for our flag. That's the difference!" Minister Lenihan's annoyance was obvious. He stopped in the middle of the rolling maul. "As you know from eastern Europe, when the far right and the far left take over, free speech disappears very fast." And then he repeated the mantra of the day: "We are entering uncharted waters." In fact, he had entered the green space outside, courtesy of security guards and an emergency exit.

"There is no plan B." And he couldn't say if there might be a plan C. Much later in the day, at a very downbeat press conference outside Government Buildings, Taoiseach Cowen expressed the hope that there still might be another way.

Cleverly spreading the blame, he remarked: "The Union has been in this situation before, and each time has found an agreed way forward. I hope that we can do so again on this occasion." Plan C, so. Which leaves another 23 letters in the alphabet to go if that one fails too.

Gerry Adams wasn't in uncharted waters. This was like the good old days, when he was a magnet for foreign journalists. In the absence of Declan Ganley, the poster boy for the No campaign, he became the centre of attention.

If we are the only country to reject the treaty, where do we stand? "Well, with respect, it's the only state that hasn't ratified this - the country is bigger that the State," replied Gerry. Aaah, the good old days.

Business cards from the various No groups were being handed around with abandon, in anticipation of the new dispensation.

The action moved to Dublin Castle, where the national result was to be announced.

At this stage, it became clear that Brian Cowen wouldn't be going anywhere near the place. Not one senior Minister deigned to turn up for the announcement. As when the first Nice Treaty was rejected, only two big names from Fianna Fáil were present.

The same two - MEP Eoin Ryan and Junior Minster, Conor Lenihan. Ironically, on the day that was in it, Junior Minister for Integration.

The No camp was getting giddy, and annoyed at the attention being given to the likes of Pat Cox and Eamon Gilmore.

What about the winners? The members of the People Before Profit Alliance and Sinn Féin began to catcall.

A woman from the Peace and Neutrality Alliance was disgusted with them. "Make a note," she said, "The No campaign is very badly behaved." But on the same side, nonetheless.

A venerable pro-European with impeccable credentials looked on. What will happen now to the Government? "They'll be in the doghouse for quite some time." Could be worse.

Patricia McKenna materialised just in time for the result, after her day long incarceration out in RTÉ. Half an hour after the announcement, she was back on the airwaves. "This is not a victory, it's an opportunity."

A leaflet press release from the French National Front was doing the rounds. "Long Live Ireland," it said.

Team Gay Mitchell turned up with Enda Kenny. All very down in the mouth. But not a day for apportioning blame. ("We'll be doing that later this evening" whispered a handler.) Niamh Uí Bhríain from Cóir was hoisted shoulder high twice - one for the Irish announcement and again for the one in English.

Then the media was driven by bus for the Taoiseach's statement outside Government Buildings. He spoke flanked by Mary Harney, Micheál Martin and John Gormley, who had been specially chiselled off the fence for the occasion.

He was very grave, but went into Captain Kirk mode and said we would have to boldly go where Europe hadn't gone before. Micheál Martin, who has to meet his EU colleagues on Monday looked like he was going to cry.

Where did it all go wrong? They'll have to wake up to their disconnect with the people. Chickens came home to roost yesterday, and they came from much nearer to home than Brussels.