No camp will take a lot of positives from poll defeat

Sat, Jun 2, 2012, 01:00

INSIDE POLITICS:The last shall be first and the first shall be last. The fiscal treaty has been passed but key elements on the No side are in many ways the real winners.

For Sinn Féin and the parties and groups on the far left, EU referendums are the political equivalent of a lottery bonanza or a licence to print money.

Once again they have benefited hugely in terms of access to the news media. This should pay off in increased votes in the local and European elections two years hence.

Unless there is a major change in the political climate, Sinn Féin is likely to do very well in both contests and the United Left Alliance (ULA) should also increase support.

Already Sinn Féin is planning its European and local campaigns. Mary Lou McDonald is firmly ensconced in the Dáil but the party will be looking to win back the Dublin seat she lost in the 2009 European poll. That was a fairly slack time for Sinn Féin but it still performed solidly in the European constituencies of Ireland South and North-West.

The Socialist Party, an element of the ULA, made sure to put Dublin MEP Paul Murphy’s picture on its ubiquitous referendum posters.

Probably the most articulate advocate on the No side, the UCD law graduate took over the seat vacated by Joe Higgins when he returned to the Dáil, but this time Murphy should have a strong chance of making it in his own right.

That is not to say there are no question marks in the public mind over these groups. There are issues of credibility in relation to their policies and, in the case of Sinn Féin, the background of some of its more prominent personalities is subject to continuing scrutiny.

Sinn Féin has been accused by its opponents of adopting policies on the basis of what the public wants rather than what it needs, of a blanket opposition to cutbacks without a plausible alternative fiscal strategy.

The far-left groups and individual deputies of a similar disposition have been charged with taking an even cruder line of opposition to measures that the political establishment would insist are prudent and sensible.

However, politics and populism are inseparable and the mainstream parties have indulged in their share of it, particularly over the last 10 to 15 years. Fianna Fáil in government liked to give the people what they wanted and there were few on the opposition benches who shouted stop at the time.

On the right of the spectrum, Declan Ganley made a late entry on the referendum scene. His message to an EU sub-committee in Leinster House at the start of April was that, under certain conditions, he could be persuaded to vote Yes. He resurfaced on the No side in the late stages of the campaign and got national attention as a panellist in the debate on RTÉ’s The Frontline.

The Galway-based businessman is refusing to rule out a second run for Europe in two years’ time and he gave the three successful candidates a good run for their money in the North-West constituency last time around.

In the last local elections, Sinn Féin made no real gains, remaining static with 54 city and council seats, while Fine Gael and Labour surged ahead at the expense of Fianna Fáil. The outlook for the “Shinners” must be much brighter this time, with Labour in particular looking vulnerable.

Another great boon to Gerry Adams, Joe Higgins and Richard Boyd Barrett has been the effective neutralising of Fianna Fáil as an opposition force in this referendum.

Micheál Martin’s party led us into the European Economic Community in the first place and his principled stance in backing the fiscal treaty was very much in that tradition.

Martin’s consistency in taking the Yes side on this occasion could even be regarded as admirable, although it left the field open to other opposition forces to make hay by promoting a No vote.

It is not hard to imagine that the late Charles Haughey, who was against just about everything in opposition, would have found a way of coming out on the No side, perhaps with some technical objection, and campaigned on the slogan: “For a better treaty, vote No.”

Haughey got away with that approach on the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which he fiercely denounced in opposition but later accepted when he got back into government. That was cynical, of course, but in line with the philosophy of Indira Gandhi who said: “Politics is the art of acquiring, holding and wielding power.”

Éamon Ó Cuív clearly has genuine doubts about the way Europe is going, but he had no open party support except for three local councillors.

The quiet but effective manner in which “Dev Óg” was brought to heel at least showed that Martin was in control of his own party, and that may have helped Fianna Fáil to gain three points, to 17 per cent, in the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll.

But the Soldiers of Destiny are still lagging behind Sinn Féin, which also went up three points to 24 per cent.

The arrival of Sinn Féin as a significant political force, North and South, is a byproduct of the peace process that successive Fianna Fáil leaders risked so much to promote.

Ironically, by opening the door to Sinn Féin they may have damaged the future prospects of their own party. The same has been said of John Hume and the SDLP. In the North, Sinn Féin sounds more and more like a constitutional nationalist party; south of the Border it sounds more and more like the old Fianna Fáil: another outcome of the history-making events of Good Friday, 1998.

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