If Yes side sticks to the big picture Lisbon can be won


INSIDE POLITICS:There is a different momentum to the Lisbon debate this time round which should favour a Yes vote, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

THE YES campaign for the Lisbon Treaty has started much more vibrantly the second time around. If the pro-EU political parties and civic society groups keep going at the same pace for the next three weeks there is every chance that the Irish people will vote in favour of the treaty.

It’s just a pity that the same spark was so lacking last year when the major political parties allowed the debate to be hijacked by people who had all sorts of different agendas but were linked by a common desire to damage the European Union.

This time around the naked anti-EU face of the No campaign is more obvious. There is something comically ironic about Sinn Féin, Joe Higgins, the fanatics of Cóir and the little Englanders of UKIP making common cause to try and convince the Irish people about the evils of the European project.

Patently false claims do not seem to have fallen on such fertile ground this time around, mainly because the plunge into the economic abyss over the past 12 months seems to have woken much of the electorate up to the benefits of EU membership, Nonetheless, the fact that so many people were prepared to believe the nonsense about conscription and abortion last year is still a worry. It shows that the electorate is easily capable of being swayed by spurious arguments.

There is a dangerous paradox about the fact that while Irish people are generally positive about the EU, they have twice voted to reject EU treaties. According to the most recent Irish Times poll 80 per cent of Irish voters believe it is a good thing to be part of the EU and just 9 per cent believe it is not. Yet only last year the voters rejected a treaty whose main objective was to improve its decision-making processes.

The problem is that when voting last year many people were clearly swayed by factors that had nothing to do with the treaty. Anti-Government sentiment was one obvious motivation while for religious conservatives and left-wing campaigners, who tend to vote No in every EU referendum, Lisbon was just another excuse to vent their fears and frustrations. Getting people to focus on the boring nuts and bolts of any EU treaty is always hard but it is particularly difficult on Lisbon because the treaty does not contain any big idea appealing directly to the concerns of voters. It is mostly about improved political and administrative procedures.

This time around the Yes campaign is focusing on the core issue of whether or not the Irish people want to be at the heart of an EU that works. That is far more sensible than getting bogged down in debate on the intricacies of treaty provisions. As long as the Yes side stick to the big picture campaigners should be able to get their message across.

This time around the Referendum Commission under the chairmanship of the impressive High Court judge, Frank Clarke, is playing a much more interventionist role in informing voters what the treaty is and is not about. Clarke’s decisive intervention knocked on the head the ludicrous Cóir claim about the minimum wage being cut before it had a chance to get off the ground.

The major political parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour, are all waging much more committed and coherent Yes campaigns this time. Brian Cowen was hamstrung by coming in after Bertie Ahern had effectively derailed the Government’s campaign with his own problems and concerns.

For Cowen the loss of Lisbon was the worst possible start to his premiership and he has never recovered. A Yes victory would boost his morale even if his political fate is more or less sealed at this stage. A second Lisbon defeat would almost certainly spell the end of his leadership but would be so damaging to the country that nobody on the Yes side wants to contemplate it. For Enda Kenny a Yes is just as important for purely party political reasons, as well as in the national interest. The last thing the Fine Gael leader needs is to come to power in circumstances where Ireland has blocked EU reform and incurred the wrath of our fellow members. He has kicked off a national campaign which will be a real test of his leadership, considering he now heads the largest party in the country.

With Fine Gael and Labour forging ahead in the opinion polls the responsibility for carrying the referendum lies every bit as much with them as it does with the Government parties and it is clearly in their political interest to get a Yes vote.

Another big difference between this and the last referendum campaign is the involvement of a number of civic society groups on the Yes side. They have brought a level of energy and excitement to the campaign that was clearly lacking in 2008.

The No campaign has missed Declan Ganley and his money. There are suggestions he may make a belated intervention that would inevitably attract a lot of publicity. However, his failure to get elected to the European Parliament and the humiliating rejection of Libertas candidates right across Europe should have dented his capacity to influence events. Still, if Ganley emerges from hibernation, his arguments will need to be countered decisively with the kind of ruthlessness he deployed in his cynical 2008 campaign. Minister for European Affairs Dick Roche is the ideal person for that job.

Regardless of whether or not Ganley gets involved the Yes side needs to campaign every single day as if the referendum could be lost. If that happens there is every chance that the Irish electorate will vote in a way that protects the long-term interests of the country.