Opposition parties slow to get fully behind Yes campaign

Tue, May 27, 2008, 01:00

ANALYSIS:Senior Fine Gael figures have proven to be far too shy in the presence of microphones

MORE THAN two weeks out from the Lisbon Treaty referendum, political parties on the Yes side are already beginning to niggle each other. It is not a good sign for the Yes side.

On Sunday, Taoiseach Brian Cowen welcomed a poll that showed strong Yes support from Fianna Fáil supporters, but, in the eyes of some, criticised Fine Gael and Labour.

"I'm glad to see our own party, the support of our own base is certainly highest amongst all the parties and I'm sure the other parties will crank up their campaigns now as well," he said in Portlaoise.

Yesterday, Cowen was extremely annoyed, according to Government Buildings sources, to see that that quote had been portrayed as him challenging the Opposition to do better in the final weeks of the campaign.

Instead, Cowen insisted that the proper interpretation of the sentence should have been seen as "encouragement" to the other parties on the Yes side to get its vote out when the public goes to the polls on June 12th.

Rightly or wrongly, Cowen's remarks are feeding a growing well of annoyance among Fine Gael supporters that he is taking them for granted.

Fine Gael has problems: its supporters are divided 50:50 on the treaty and it is upset by Cowen's behaviour.

So far, the party has not yet started a leader's tour - as happens in general elections - and there is no evidence that it is planning to do so.

However, it furiously rejects the charge that it is not pulling its weight, pointing out that it launched its campaign earlier than anyone else.

It argues that it has been working to a plan set down before last Christmas, and that the pace of events will be accelerated in the final fortnight.

Enda Kenny warned months ago that Bertie Ahern's tribunal travails and Fianna Fáil's leadership succession had delayed referendum planning. And he was right.

And Kenny is out canvassing, though even the party admits that it has not been telling the press about his engagements in advance.

But it has carried out up to 50 public meetings, and passed out thousands of pieces of literature advocating a Yes vote in constituencies.

However, the wind in the last week - particularly in rural constituencies - has been behind the No campaign and Fine Gael TDs have been quick to spot it.

"I met 30 people this morning; 20 were against it - and not one of them because of anything that was actually in the treaty," said one senior Fine Gael TD yesterday.

Yet another said: "Look, I am canvassing and talking to people, but I am not doing any more than I have to do, to be honest."

Youthful TD Lucinda Creighton has become the face of the Fine Gael media campaign - though her concentration on defence issues could be questioned.

Nevertheless, she cannot be faulted for effort - though far more senior figures in the party have proven to be far too shy in the presence of microphones.

Gay Mitchell has been active at office briefings, although his determination to talk about defence and "panzer divisions" is not currying much favour.

Fianna Fáil, said a series of senior Fine Gael people yesterday, appears not to understand how badly the Taoiseach's "I'll silence you" attack went down last week.

"The very least that he should be trying to do is bring people onside, not insult people when he needs them to play ball," said one FG deputy.

The Labour Party, equally, has a problem with its constituency, which is also badly divided in its attitude towards the treaty.

Again, Labour is launching posters, doing door-to-door canvassing, issuing press statements, and yet failing to make much of an impression.

However, both Fine Gael and Labour insist that they cannot be blamed when the media is always going to focus on the Taoiseach - particularly a new one.

"If we do a launch, we'll get a 20-seconds clip. Cowen will get 30 seconds of himself just walking down the street, plus a report," said one Fine Gael press officer yesterday.

However, Labour's own diary does not convince that the party is throwing its soul into the campaign. Eamon Gilmore's next scheduled canvass is not until May 31st.

He is then listed to take part in eight constituency canvasses over the remaining part of the campaign, and some media appearances.

The party's director of elections, Joe Costello, responsible for orchestrating matters, has been all but invisible in media debates on the treaty.

The Progressive Democrats insist that their new leader, CiaráCannon, is active on the ground, though, again, evidence that he is making an impact is thin.

Mary Harney has been silent, yet she is said to be only too willing to get involved - though she has to be careful not to overshadow her successor.

The Green Party Ministers - faced with an organisation that narrowly refused to take a clear position on the treaty - have been practically silent.

So far, John Gormley has not taken part in a single interview whose primary purpose was to push for a Yes vote, while Eamon Ryan has not done much better.

Bizarrely, there appears to be little or no contact between the government parties about planning for the referendum campaign. It is a funny way to fight a war and one they had better hope they do not live to regret.