Coalition and FF quest for Yes faces obstacle course

Wed, Feb 29, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:There is a danger issues – from the household charge to the septic tank fee – will generate support for the No side, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

THE BATTLE lines for the referendum on the European Stability Treaty were drawn within minutes of Taoiseach Enda Kenny announcing that the issue would be put to the people on the advice of Attorney General Máire Whelan.

Political leaders in favour of a Yes vote argued that endorsing new fiscal rules is vital for economic prosperity while the No side kicked off by calling on people to vote against austerity and the terms of the EU-International Monetary Fund bailout.

“It’s the day the Government’s luck ran out,” remarked a leading Fianna Fáil TD who forecast that it would be impossible to keep the debate focused on the treaty in the months ahead.

The decision to hold a referendum came as something of a surprise and a disappointment to many on the Government side who had hoped to avoid a rancorous campaign and a possible rejection of the treaty.

Given that the Nice and Lisbon treaties were rejected first time around, there is obviously a good chance that the verdict on the latest treaty will also be No. This time, there will not be a second chance as it only requires 12 of the euro zone countries to ratify to bring the treaty into effect.

Kenny has said all along that the decision on whether or not to hold a referendum would depend on the advice of the Attorney General and, after months of detailed work and consideration, her advice was that the issue should be put to the people.

The nub of her advice, formally given to yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, was that as the treaty falls outside the normal EU treaty architecture it needed to be ratified by the people.

Announcing the decision to the Dáil, the Taoiseach argued for a Yes vote on the basis that endorsing the treaty would be good for the Irish economy with new and enforceable rules for responsible budgeting ensuring that reckless economic mismanagement would not be repeated. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore made a similar argument saying it boiled down to a decision on what was the best way to attract investment to the country to create jobs.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who has consistently argued that a referendum should be held, regardless of whether or not one is legally required, welcomed the decision, saying the issue was of such importance that the people’s verdict was required. Crucially, though, he announced that his party would be campaigning for a Yes vote.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams told the Dáil that his party would be campaigning for a No vote on the basis that the referendum would be about whether austerity was the answer to the country’s problems.

Speaking on behalf of the technical group, Shane Ross made no bones about the fact that the No campaign would not be about the terms of the treaty but about asking the Irish people to vent their feelings about the EU-IMF bailout terms and the demand for a credit write-off.

There is an obvious danger a range of other issues – from the household charge to the septic tank registration fee – will also serve to generate support for the No campaign and obscure the real issues involved.

For all that, the Government is in a good position to seize the initiative and get its message across from the start of the campaign.

As it approaches its first anniversary, the Coalition has built up a fair degree of credibility. When it took office 12 months ago, the conventional wisdom was that its popularity would not last 100 days, given the decisions it would have to take.

That assessment proved very wrong and, despite having to come to terms with the necessity of implementing many of the policies of its predecessor, the Coalition has been able to put its own stamp on things while Kenny has proved to be a much more able and popular Taoiseach than the pundits forecast.

The Coalition is better-equipped to mount a more coherent campaign than the Cowen government managed in the first Lisbon referendum. There will certainly be no complacency about the outcome in the Coalition ranks.

The fact that Martin played such an important role in the second Lisbon referendum will also be an advantage to the Yes campaign, while the decision of Green Party leader Eamon Ryan to back the Yes side and avoid the easy option of reverting to No should also be a help.

By contrast, the attitude of Sinn Féin and the various left- and right-wing factions in the No campaign will come as no surprise as they have been against every single advance in Europe since 1972.

One way or another, it is going to be a difficult battle and it could go either way. The No campaign, as always, will have the luxury of saying that a No vote will not have any negative consequences, while the Yes side has to be careful about being seen to threaten the electorate.

In their Dáil speeches yesterday, both Kenny and Gilmore refrained from any suggestion that Ireland’s future participation in the euro depended on a Yes vote, yet that is really what is at stake when the treaty is stripped back to its core.

If the Yes side is going to carry the day, people will need to be told the reality of what a rejection of the treaty means. How Ireland will survive if the country can no longer borrow money or how it can expect to stay in the euro zone in such a situation is something that people need to be told about.

The first Lisbon referendum was lost because people just didn’t care about Cowen’s argument that the treaty would make the EU work more efficiently.

This time around, it is doubtful if they are going to care very much about the theoretical advantages of “responsible budgeting” outlined yesterday by Kenny. The negative consequences of running out of money are more likely to concentrate minds.