Ó Cuív's timing and approach seem very peculiar
IN HIS keynote address to the Institute of International and European Affairs three weeks ago Micheál Martin was at pains to emphasise that Fianna Fáil has historically been a pro-European party.
He spoke of how, although it had enacted a republican constitution, Fianna Fáil had always supported sharing sovereignty with the nations of Europe. He spoke also of how Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch worked for over a decade to achieve membership of the EEC and of how Fianna Fáil had supported the ratification of every treaty expanding the EEC’s role and membership.
Martin also pointed out in that address that Fianna Fáil voters – both its current voters and those who had previously voted for the party – had supported each European treaty at a higher level than those of any other party. “Our current and potential supporters are unequivocally part of the pro-European mainstream,” he said.
I speculated here the following weekend that these comments by the Fianna Fáil leader appeared to be directed at his internal party audience rather than at the wider electorate. It was clear Martin was seeking to counter the suggestion from some voices within his own party that it was somehow in Fianna Fáil’s electoral interest to take a Eurosceptic turn.
We now know that among those to the forefront of Martin’s mind when making these remarks was his then deputy leader Éamon Ó Cuív.
The exit poll data on recent referendums on European issues shows that Fianna Fáil voters have indeed voted Yes in greater proportions to those of any other party.
For all those referendums, however, Fianna Fáil was in government and as such was leading the Yes campaign.
In May 1972 Fianna Fáil in government oversaw the campaign for accession into the EEC in the first such referendum.
Although it was in opposition when negotiations for the Single European Act were finalised, Fianna Fáil was back in government when it was put to the people in May 1987.
It was again in government for the June 1992 Maastricht referendum and for the May 1998 Amsterdam treaty vote.
It was also in charge when the Nice treaty was rejected in June 2001 and when it was accepted in October 2002. It was similarly in government when the Lisbon treaty failed in June 2008 and when it passed in October 2009.
Even in ordinary circumstances Martin would have struggled to hold a pro-European line in this the first such referendum with Fianna Fáil in Opposition.
His challenge is made all the more difficult at this time of economic crisis when his depleted and traumatised party is struggling to find a role and policy space for itself.
Whatever the merits of Ó Cuív’s arguments around the fiscal compact – and they are questionable – his timing and approach on the issue seems very peculiar.
In advance of Martin’s institute address, the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party had a relatively detailed discussion on its European policy. Ó Cuív found himself in the minority that day. He was content, however, to keep the differences private, even though he was always going to have to take a public stance on the fiscal compact treaty either when it came before the Dáil for ratification or if a referendum was required. He bided his time.
Fianna Fáil, like everyone else, was then taken by surprise when the Government announced on Tuesday that a referendum would be required after all. Even at this stage Ó Cuív chose not to talk to his leader to tell him he was going to depart publicly from the party stance. He could even have sought a parliamentary party meeting that evening to revisit the question. Instead he just broke ranks live on TG4.
In so doing he put his leader in the invidious position on Prime Time a few hours later of having to suggest there was no real breach between them on the issue. Ó Cuív went further in a Raidió na Gaeltachta interview the following morning, leaving Martin with no option but to seek his resignation as deputy leader and from the front bench.
Ó Cuív then kept going. On Wednesday evening he ended up almost in a head to head with his leader on the Six One News and then made himself available for an extended late-night interview with Vincent Browne. He was in the same TV3 studio again for breakfast television early on Thursday morning before embarking on another round of national and local radio interviews.
These were not the actions of a man seeking to minimise the rift with his leader or the damage to his party. It all suggests that notwithstanding his withdrawal from the contest for the party vice-presidency at the ardfheis, Ó Cuív is seeking to provoke a further showdown.
Were it not for the fact that this is ardfheis weekend Martin might have been minded to propose Ó Cuív’s expulsion from the parliamentary party altogether. If the Fianna Fáil leader manages to hold the position on his European policy with the delegates at the RDS and Ó Cuív keeps up this level of energetic public dissent then a complete break between de Valera’s grandson and modern Fianna Fáil seems almost inevitable.
All of this could yet have a significant impact on the prospects for the fiscal compact referendum itself. Although shrunken, Fianna Fáil is still the third largest party in the polls and the party for which another 20 per cent or so of the electorate previously voted. The party’s official attitude to this treaty will still matter. The prospects of a breakaway Fianna Fáil campaign for a No vote will make things even more difficult for the Government and all those on the Yes side.