Yes! Oh Yes! And cue the music as all and sundry blow their own trumpets

Mon, Oct 5, 2009, 01:00

Most political parties danced themselves dizzy with Civil Society as the curtain came down on Lisbon, writes MIRIAM LORD

BRIAN COWEN, backed by a beaming swing quartet, skipped to the steps of Government Buildings and loudly sang the praises of the Irish people.

By instinct and by action, the Taoiseach is a solo performer. But for this gig, he was happy to concede that an extraordinary rendition by a chorus of civil society had carried the day.

The mood music in Merrion Street was so different the second time around. Back in June 2008, after a distrustful electorate voted No and forced the political establishment to confront its own failings, a beaten Brian Cowen and a glum trio of Ministers trudged to those same steps but couldn’t raise a tune between them.

It’s been one long dirge for Brian and his colleagues since then. And even though they couldn’t exactly cut loose and celebrate the astonishing 20 per cent shift in favour of the treaty, there was something rather touching in the way Saturday’s swing quartet of Micheál Martin, John Gormley, Mary Harney and Dick Roche swayed and clapped after their leader publicly embraced those cheering closing numbers. They were entitled to enjoy their moment in the sun.

Success, it is said, has many fathers. If Brian Lenihan could only squeeze maintenance money from all those now stepping forward to claim they begat the Lisbon victory, our budget deficit would look far healthier today.

Only the politicians are saying they don’t want any credit. (Actually, they do. It’s in their DNA. Fine Gael and Labour were busily blowing their own trumpets an hour into the count. It’s just the Government that has to appear modest, for fear of drawing attention to itself.)

The phrase du jour was “civil society”. The party leaders couldn’t get enough of it when attributing a reason for the stunning reversal of last year’s result. Civil Society Ireland (CSI) came out and won over a sceptical public – it was the ordinary man and woman in the street wot did it.

This one-off episode of CSI Establishmentseemed to draw its cast of characters from ordinary people you would see in Questions and Answers. It’ll be interesting to see where civil society gets protesters when the post-referendum glow wears off.

But back to the referendum count – it was terribly disappointing. It was over in less than an hour. Not an ounce of suspense for the pundits, with television number-crunchers reduced to speculating on the size of the swing before lunchtime rolled around.

Libertas leader Declan Ganley provided welcome copy when he arrived early in the RDS. The polished newcomer gave our more experienced politicians a lesson in how to concede defeat as he milked the media with a series of mischievously cryptic comments about Brian Cowen’s political acumen. Afterwards, the talk was not about how he had been trounced by the voters but of what plan he is formulating to win himself a seat in the Dáil.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin was the next big name to arrive. He bounced from microphone to microphone like a happy bumble bee in a herbaceous border, regaling reporters with tales of How the Yes Was Won. (With the help of CSI, of course.)

Micheál is seen as the main Cabinet beneficiary of the Lisbon bounce, and his role as director of the Yes campaign will have done no harm to his leadership aspirations. As the counting continued, bookmaker Paddy Power made him joint favourite to step into Cowen’s shoes.

The action moved to Government Buildings, with word that the Taoiseach was ready to welcome the result, hours ahead of the official announcement.

When your name is Brian Cowen, delayed gratification is a risk too far. The small group of media waiting in front of the fountain was swelled by the arrival of a posse of top-level Government advisers, who led the applause after the Taoiseach spoke. They had the look of men and women about to have a party.

The newly liberated Dick Roche was the only member of Brian’s swing quartet to make it back to Dublin Castle for the announcement. After initial fears he might not be able to fit his head through the Cork Hill gates, he followed his smile up the stairs and celebrated enough for the missing three.

Most of the No camp stayed away. But Sinn Féin, a party that thrives on adversity, showed willing and rolled up in a tight scum with Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald at the head. This came as a relief to the foreign television crews, driven demented all day trying to find a face the folks back home might recognise.

Dublin Castle provided Enda Kenny with his big moment. A noisy group of Young Fine Gaelers, or “Ibec Youth” as one commentator christened them, waited for him at the gates.

By the time their hero arrived on the party battle bus, the near-hysterical little blueshirts – like baby alickadoos in search of a Heineken Cup match – swarmed over to the doors. They held up their placards, competing to be heard over a nosy Victims of the Legal Profession protest.

“Oh dear God, Enda’s never experienced this type of hysteria before,” shrieked a worried bystander. “I hope he doesn’t pass out!” The man who thinks he’s taoiseach stepped out to a deafening chorus of cheers. “Wave to the people! Blow them kisses!” cried a delirious baby blue as Enda was marshalled through the crowd to meet the press.

He said it was a clear victory for the people and for “civic society” and was delighted Fine Gael had helped save the day by rising above party politics.

You were nothing in Irish political circles on Saturday if you hadn’t taken phone calls from big wigs in Europe. Cowen, his press adviser said, wouldn’t be able to do the usual question-and-answer session because he was very busy taking calls.

The Taoiseach revealed he had already been speaking to José Manuel Barroso and Angela Merkel had also been on.

Not to be outdone, Enda let slip “I’ve just been speaking to José Barroso, who contacted me just an hour ago”. Then somebody cried “Release the balloons!” and the Ibec Youth nearly fainted with joy as 100 yellow FG balloons went skywards.

In a day free from disruption, one possible flashpoint was averted when a man was denied entry after he was discovered trying to bring in a holdall full of peeled oranges. When asked for an explanation, the best he could manage was “I’m very hungry”.

Labour’s Eamon Gilmore repeated Enda’s line that his party had risen above party politics in the national interest. Now, it’s “business as usual, with a vengeance”. In St Patrick’s Hall, it was the turn of Ógra Fianna Fáil to make the noise.

When the result was announced, and the nation saw the unsettling sight of academic Brigid Laffan being shouldered high, the young FFers waved their placards and burst into a chorus of óles. Meath East Deputy Thomas Byrne celebrated in the middle of them, looking like he was trying to remember the words.

Various representatives of the Civil Society accosted members of the press with press releases highlighting their role in winning the Yes. But the one person who wasn’t looking for credit was getting the most acclaim.

Garret FitzGerald, fresh from helping the Labour Party tally votes at the Dublin Central count (“I enjoyed that”) – savoured the moment. But he too was already focused on what comes next. “In November 1982, Fine Gael said ‘We can offer nothing but tax increases and cuts’ – and we ended up with the highest vote we ever got.” Then the youth wings went off for pints and the rest of the CSI brigade – the oldest swingers in town – fanned out to do the rounds of the microphones and cameras. “It’s business as usual now,” chortled Enda – next stop the Ballinasloe Horse Fair.

And everyone gave a sigh of relief there won’t be a Lisbon III.