Pro-Lisbon campaign still to get off ground


ANALYSIS:An absence of Ministers supporting Dick Roche's 'Vote Yes' plea on Lisbon has left the running to a diverse, at times conflicting, No campaign

SPANISH PHILOSOPHER George Santayana, a man never faced with a European Union referendum, once said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

During the first Nice Treaty campaign, the government was lackadaisical in its preparations, and unsuccessful when it tried to motivate supporters to come out. Today, Fianna Fáil insists that Ireland is not looking at a repeat of that campaign: that there is a plan, and that it is being followed.

If so, it is hard to discern, since few senior figures in Government seem to be making it "their life's work to get it passed", to quote one Minister.

Up to recently, politicians and officials were reasonably sanguine, believing that Lisbon would be ratified relatively easily; with no outrageous display of Europhilia, but by a comfortable margin nevertheless.

However, last weekend's Sunday Business Post poll has sent sharp ripples of concern within Fine Gael and Labour; but most in Fianna Fáil profess to be remaining calm, even though, privately, some acknowledge that problems exist. The party's campaign - which is said to be better organised than anything previously done for an EU campaign - will not get going until May 12th. The belief is that the public can only be interested in matters European for a brief period, and that there was little point wasting their sweetness upon the desert air before now. Perhaps they are right, perhaps not.

The FF campaign will push a positive message about Ireland's membership of the European Union over the last 35 years, and how membership will be positive in the future.

However, No campaigners have been quick to try to narrow the Government's ground, with Libertas proclaiming in its slogan: "Europe's been great for Ireland. Let's keep it that way."

Up to now, Minister of State Dick Roche has fought a lonely but determined campaign to get out the message on the airwaves about the referendum on behalf of the Government. Indeed, he has been out far too often for his own good, and for the campaign's, since many find Roche too wordy and argumentative for their tastes.

However, Roche has been doing what others are not. When they do talk about Lisbon, most other Ministers do so in a way that is perfunctory and that does little to persuade the undecided.

The strategy has left a lot of room for the diverse, disunited but active No campaign to send out their - sometimes conflicting - messages for months. In fact, the No campaign was given even more time than it otherwise might have had because of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's dithering over the date.

Undoubtedly, it had originally been intended to hold the referendum from the middle of May onwards, well before the Leaving Certificate examinations and early summer breaks.

The difficulties surrounding Ahern over his financial affairs, however, hindered efforts to create a tight focus on getting Lisbon passed, numerous quarters have privately admitted.

And Ahern's decision wrongly to lay the blame for school water charges at the door of the European Commission was manna from heaven for those calling for a No vote.

Some of the timing problems facing Ahern were created by his desire to meet his past promise to put a children's referendum to the people.

However, the wording of such a referendum could not be agreed. Indeed, the task is still proving to be difficult to surmount for the Oireachtas Committee on Children.

The Referendum Commission was set up on March 6th, and work had already been done beforehand to lay the groundwork for its public information campaign. Instead, the referendum is taking place anything from a fortnight to a month later than planned, and some groups usually supportive of EU polls have become more jaundiced, particularly the elderly, say some TDs. Leading voters with opinions unformed is one thing, changing

opinions that have been formed is quite another.

In addition, there is evidence that officials were already thinking about the aftermath of Lisbon's ratification even before they began planning for the referendum itself.

A clear, consolidated treaty text was slow in coming; partly because officials rightly believed that no one would read it, but it did allow the No campaign to lay charges of concealment.

Meanwhile, the private acknowledgment by the Department of Foreign Affairs to the British that the referendum needed to be held before the French EU presidency - a statement of the politically obvious given Nicolas Sarkozy's tendency to opine - also created suspicions.

So far, TDs have found that most of the public is simply not interested in hearing about Lisbon; yet ever so quick to complain that they are not being told anything about it. In addition, significant elements of the media have been prepared to follow the same line, consuming time and space that could actually have been used to inform.

And there is the confusion caused by a host of issues that have nothing to do with Lisbon, or that are simply untrue: with everything from abortion, euthanasia, and an alleged dastardly plan to limit family sizes thrown in.

For the No campaign, the current campaign is also breaking new ground. It has never been so strong before a campaign kicked into top gear. Libertas, though it is only one part of the No campaign and not one whose views are shared by others calling for the same result, is the best-funded No lobby to date.

Privately, senior Government figures are keen to target its founder, Declan Ganley, particularly over his business ties with US defence companies.

Playing the man, and not the ball, is sometimes a risky business in politics, and Ganley, perhaps in preparation, has moved somewhat into the Libertas background in recent weeks.

Though the influence and reach of Libertas can be overstated, its presence is significant in that it is the first time a pro-business lobby has called for a No vote.

And others who would have been strong campaigners for a Yes vote - the trade unions and the farmers - are playing hard-ball in search of concessions on issues unrelated to Lisbon.

Both were uninvolved in the first Nice campaign, too; and their recruitment, along with wider elements of civil society, was key to getting it passed the second time around.

The question now is whether there will be time, if they are willing, for the unions and the Irish Farmers' Association to change their tune close to polling day, and to be heard and heeded by their supporters.

This week, Fianna Fáil TDs remain relatively blase about Lisbon: the issue does not interest them very much and it is not coming up on the doorsteps.

Indeed, some of them are being guided by the IFA, which argues that EU commissioner Peter Mandelson's World Trade talks negotiating stance threatens Irish agriculture. However, it should matter a great deal to FF TDs, if only for the most narrow and political of reasons, since it will take place little over a month after Brian Cowen becomes taoiseach.

A defeat on an issue so fundamental would threaten Cowen's position and his ability to create a new relationship with the Irish people after 11 years of Ahern.

During a passionate display in the Dáil on Tuesday, Cowen argued forcefully for a Yes vote, and he has done so already at some of the party's 25 public meetings held so far.

No doubt Cowen will do so repeatedly once FF's campaign gets under way.

And he will have to do so, and not just because he thinks a Yes vote is in Ireland's interests.

Mark Hennessy is political correspondent