Political damage suffered by Cowen has yet to become clear

Sat, Jun 14, 2008, 01:00

ANALYSIS:The recriminations in FF will not be long in coming, with Dick Roche probably first in line, writes Mark Hennessy

FOR MONTHS Fianna Fáil TDs were warned that a Lisbon referendum defeat would have serious consequences for Brian Cowen's leadership.

Every time it was said, the TDs nodded with apparent understanding, though they never convinced that they had truly taken the message on board.

The party's organisation on the ground would come out; the vote would be mobilised, they argued. Everything would be all right.

In some places, this happened, but nowhere by enough.

Again and again, there was a wealth of anecdote that the party's canvassers were not visible on the ground - and when they were, they were not convincing.

The recriminations within Fianna Fáil will not be long in coming, with Minister of State for Europe Dick Roche probably first in the firing line.

However, Roche, while he made mistakes, cannot be faulted for effort, which is not something that others of equal and higher rank can say with confidence.

For months he had complained that the Cabinet was not focused, and that Ministers were failing to press Lisbon's message home.

Cowen knows how much damage has been suffered. He was minister for foreign affairs after the Nice Treaty went south, when he had to pick up the pieces. While he is now in the vanguard for blame, his predecessor, Bertie Ahern, must take a big share for the crisis now developing.

Obsessed by his Mahon tribunal difficulties, Ahern failed to concentrate on Lisbon early enough and dithered about naming a date, leaving a vacuum for the No camp.

Early on, the school water charge controversy damaged the standing of Brussels in thousands of homes as schools faced the prospects of bills running into thousands. Ahern laid the blame - wrongly - on Brussels for the bills even though Ireland had signed up for the 1999 EU water directive without getting an exclusion for schools.

The timing of the referendum was put to one side while the Government considered whether to hold a children's rights referendum alongside.

In the end it decided against doing so, partly because it could not agree on a text and partly because it realised that the Government would be used as fodder for the No side.

Even then, Ahern delayed, despite repeated pleas from Fine Gael's Enda Kenny and Labour's Eamon Gilmore, before finally opting for June 12th as the date.

But even an earlier date would not have helped.

The middle classes, many of whom go on holidays early, divided this time rather than supported an EU treaty.

Ahern's departure made the situation worse, especially his decision to have a "sunset tour" as he waited to speak to the US Houses of Congress in Washington. By then the outgoing Taoiseach was a beaten docket.

His Ministers may have bought him flower pots and garden chairs but they ignored anything else that he said.

Though crowned Fianna Fáil leader, Cowen insisted that he could not act as the country's leader-in-waiting until he officially took over in Government Buildings. In the end, the Yes campaign failed to persuade and failed to provide reasons to vote Yes, rather than reasons why people should not vote No.

From the new year No campaigners argued that sovereignty would be lost; that Ireland's EU place would be weakened; and that the EU was seeking to become a military power.

In reply, Ministers failed to argue with passion and knowledge. By the time the official campaign began the Yes camp was losing ground.

For many the quote of the campaign was Cowen's declaration that he had not read the treaty, which was not even accurate since he was one of its lead negotiators. To this day no one is still sure why he said it.

Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, bizarrely, made the situation worse when, twice in the space of four days, she claimed that the EU's big nations still had two commissioners. In fact, the big states lost their second place on the commission in 2004. How someone who had spent several years around an EU Council of Ministers' table could not know that is extraordinary.

Cowen deepened the problem when he appeared to criticise the contribution being made by Fine Gael and Labour even though he subsequently denied doing so.

Despite Government claims that he had been misinterpreted, there was no doubting that this was the private message coming at the time from Fianna Fáil.

The long-term political damage Cowen has sustained among voters has yet to become clear, although there is no doubt his authority has been damaged.

However, it cannot be yet argued that voters will desert Fianna Fáil the next time that they are asked, and opinion polls indicate little appetite to break up the political mould.

The public's final verdict on Cowen may depend on how he handles the crisis that has been caused by the treaty's defeat, as much as by his failure to win it.