Politicians step back as Lisbon campaign starts up


Faced with Nama and the McCarthy report, our political parties lack the will to mount an effective campaign, writes ELAINE BYRNE

IT IS now 44 days until the second Lisbon referendum. At this same point in last year’s failed referendum campaign, Mark Hennessy wrote an opinion piece titled Pro-Lisbon campaign still to get off ground. Hennessy quoted the Spanish philosopher George Santayana, who said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Deja vu anyone?

With 44 days to go, our politicians are still on their holidays. When the Dáil and Seanad return on September 16th, it will only be two weeks to referendum day.

The first Lisbon referendum marked a profound rejection of the Irish political establishment. A majority of the voting public did not believe the pro-treaty explanations advocated by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the Greens and the Progressive Democrats. Instead they trusted Sinn Féin, Libertas and a medley of Catholic conservative and pro-neutrality groups.

This time, our political class has stepped back and civil society has stepped up. A number of pro-Lisbon groups launched their campaigns in July under the slogans of Women for Europe, We Belong and Ireland for Europe. So, instead of placing our hope in the political leadership of Brian Cowen, Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore and John Gormley, it is now in the hands of Nell McCafferty, Bill Cullen and The Edge. For direction on Europe, we now turn to our sporting heroes Packie Bonner, Robbie Keane and Denis Hickey.

There’s something very deeply wrong here.

Hang on: yes of course civic involvement in Irish public life should be eagerly embraced. Politics is no longer the exclusive preserve of politicians. Active citizenship politics probably has some way to go when compared to that of our European neighbours.

No, what’s utterly alarming is that our politicians are stepping back precisely at the point when we need them to jump forward.

Ireland is in the deepest crisis since the foundation of the State. In the past, extraordinary political challenges were matched with extraordinary political leadership. Kevin O’Higgins, minister for justice in 1920s post civil war Ireland, spoke of how his young and inexperienced government united against the “the wild men screaming through the keyhole”.

Prof Ronan Fanning wrote in the Sunday Independentrecently how Eamon de Valera consolidated his political authority by cloaking the “most stringent policies in the cloak of patriotic necessity” during the 1930s Great Depression. Today, in the absence of political leadership, it is civil society we turn to. Irish politics is steadily imploding. Informal conversations and access to all of the political party’s financial accounts, (except Fianna Fáil’s), suggest that our political parties are in severe financial difficulty. Democracy is not free. Under the legislation, elections and referendums can only be funded by donations.

An expectation that political parties will mount a sustained campaign to pass the Lisbon referendum assumes that they have the resources to do so. Professional campaigning costs money and political parties don’t have it. In the future, will financial considerations determine the setting of a date for a referendum in order to avoid the implications of the McKenna judgment, or decisions not to contest a presidential election, or pushing the boat out for a snap election?

In the next four months decisions will be made that will have consequences for as long as the child that is born today lives.

Gubu summed up a particularly grotesque period of Irish politics. We have yet to come up with a suitable acronym for what is about to happen. The introduction of Nama and the implementation of the McCarthy report, never mind the December budget, almost make Lisbon look inconvenient.

We are in cloud cuckoo land with the very likelihood of a deadlocked Dáil.

The Government’s voting strength in the Dáil has been reduced from 89 to 82 within two years. Jimmy Devins, Eamon Scanlon, Jim McDaid, Joe Behan and Finian McGrath no longer support the Government. The death of Séamus Brennan, the election of Pat “the Cope” Gallagher to Europe and the appointment of John O’Donoghue as Ceann Comhairle, have further reduced their majority. Technically, the Opposition benches now have 82 votes to the Government’s 82.

The casting vote of the Ceann Comhairle may be called into action. (He, by the way, has not yet responded to four weeks of Sunday Tribunerevelations about his €126,000 in foreign travel bills over two years, which includes the €1,400-a-day chauffeur to ferry him around Cheltenham for six days).

The Dáil arithmetic now means that the history we are about to make depends on Michael Lowry’s continued support for the Government. A column on Lowry’s tax affairs on these pages last April articulated it far better than I ever could. Quite simply, it called Lowry a cheat and a liar (A country still in thrall to the likes of Lowry, Opinion and Analysis).

In recent newspaper interviews, Denis O’Brien said that the provisional findings of the Moriarty tribunal appear to suggest that he had a corrupt relationship with Lowry, the then minister for transport, energy and communications. The findings are due to be published in the coming months, the same period as Nama, McCarthy, Lisbon and the budget.

In other words, the future of this country may depend on the vote of a man whom the tribunal may find . . . well, let’s see what they say.

I think I need a holiday.

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