FF and FG point finger of blame at each other

Thu, Jun 19, 2008, 01:00

ANALYSIS:Inevitably there are recriminations between the two main parties after the Lisbon debacle, writes Deaglán De Bréadún 

THERE IS an old rule that oppositions do not win elections, governments lose them. Likewise it can be said of EU referendums that the No side did not win: the Yes side lost.

Pro-Lisbon campaigners convey a strong sense of lost opportunity as they give their reflections on the last six months. The second vote on the Nice Treaty in 2002 showed that passion and conviction could carry the day for the Yes side. But on this occasion most of the enthusiasm and self-belief was in the No camp. Although they were technically on the same side, inevitably there are recriminations between the two main parties. Fine Gael claims to have been out of the traps earlier than Fianna Fáil - an assertion the latter party denies.

Fine Gael formed a Lisbon Treaty group "before Christmas" to plan the campaign. The party decided to put Enda Kenny's face on the posters as well as its Members of the European Parliament. "We felt it was a unique selling-point that Fine Gael had so many MEPs and it was important to personalise the campaign."

Party sources reject claims that this was a cynical move aimed at next year's European elections. "Between mid-March and polling day we did close to 60 public meetings," say Fine Gael sources. "Over 500,000 pieces of literature were distributed on the back of that."

They were frustrated when then-taoiseach Bertie Ahern, preoccupied with tribunal matters, wouldn't name the day for voting: "Enda was constantly calling for the date to be set."

Fine Gael is particularly critical of Fianna Fáil's failure to use a photograph of new Taoiseach and party leader Brian Cowen on its Lisbon posters and points out that all other parties on the Yes side used pictures of their leaders - even new kid on the block Ciarán Cannon of the Progressive Democrats.

Fianna Fáil sources respond to this by pointing out that they had not used the party leader's photograph on referendum posters at any time in the last 20 years. "Our poster contained our message. It wasn't about Fianna Fáil. Fine Gael postering was about building up their leader."

They point to the Taoiseach's bus tour to show that he played "a very active role". Between May 23rd and polling day, he visited 35 towns around the State on the campaign trail. Just like the main Opposition party, Fianna Fáil says it organised 60 public meetings between the end of March and polling day.

Fianna Fáil sources acknowledge that "most of the Fine Gael national leadership probably supported a Yes vote, but there was very little, if any, Fine Gael activity on the ground". Fine Gael's claim to have been campaigning busily for Lisbon is described by Fianna Fáil sources as, "an awful lot of oul' spoof".

Labour's Joe Costello says the Government was "dysfunctional" and Fianna Fáil was "paralysed", with the result that the No side was allowed take control of the agenda. He defends Labour's use of personalised posters, which he describes as "a means of incentivising our public representatives to get out and campaign".

Commenting from the No side, Libertas activist David Cochrane believes Fine Gael "did more of a campaign than Fianna Fáil". However, his colleague John McGuirk notes that, "Enda Kenny didn't exactly break his back, if the result in Mayo is anything to go by." Like other opponents of the treaty, Libertas had an early start to its campaign. The right-of-centre think-tank hired a room at the Davenport Hotel off Dublin's Merrion Square last August for a planning meeting.

McGuirk says the Libertas campaign was based on the concept that, "You could vote No and still be pro-European". Taking it for granted that there was a solid 35 per cent who could be guaranteed to vote No, Libertas set as its target to persuade another 15 per cent or so to oppose the treaty, thereby achieving a majority.

It was a question of "trying to turn the No into a positive product". Rather than being a negative gesture, Libertas presented the No vote as a means of getting something better next time. Libertas made sure that its leader Declan Ganley carried a copy of the treaty everywhere as he promoted the message that anyone who read it could not possibly vote for it. "Brian Cowen saying he hadn't read the treaty was a gift to us," says McGuirk.

Roger Cole of the Campaign Against the EU Constitution says his organisation started preparations as long ago as November 2004. The big battalions were on the Yes side but the No groups were extremely active. "Some of them might be small, but they worked their butts off," says Cole, pointing out that the tiny republican socialist group Éirígí distributed 100,000 leaflets of its own.

There is widespread agreement that the farming organisations sowed confusion among their ranks with an initially ambivalent stance on the treaty. But former Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins points out that, although there was a fair amount of confusion, there was also a "vigorous" debate, especially on TV and radio, and his analysis of the final result is a simple and straightforward one: "The issues were thrashed out and at the end of the day the Yes side lost the argument."

Deaglán de Bréadún is a political correspondent with The Irish Times