Referendum debate will be far richer thanks to Ó Cuív


ONE WOULDN’T expect Micheál Martin to agree, but Éamon Ó Cuív may have done both his party and his country a favour by taking the stance he has taken this week. Observing that Fianna Fáil is prevented by its recent history from providing the wider political culture with a full range of options, Ó Cuív has opened the game up in a way that may ultimately rebound as much to the benefit of his party as to himself.

It is entirely right that the fiscal compact referendum should become a plebiscite on what has happened to us. Before Ó Cuív’s intervention, there was a serious question as to whether it would be allowed to fulfil this vital function. Now it may.

When Michael Noonan said weeks ago that any such referendum would be a vote on our membership of the euro, he was stating the plain facts.

All the more bizarre, then, that those who have cornered the market in opposing responded by accusing him of “scaremongering”.

The early signs were that the referendum campaign would, as usual, be dominated by emotions – mainly fear and rage – driven by misrepresentations and manipulation. When the referendum was announced on Tuesday, it looked as if opposition to the fiscal compact would become a shadow-play for the battle for advantage occurring in the narrowest parliamentary context.

Independent voices fastest out of the traps seemed to harmonise with miscellaneous Sinn Féin spokespeople in again dismissing as “scaremongering” any suggestion that the referendum would decide the totality of our relations with the EU. Advocates of a No vote are careful to emphasise that the electorate is “intelligent” enough to understand the issues, but still confine themselves to reactive pronouncements arising more from the logic of the party political pantomime than a desire to get to the heart of the meaning of this referendum.

Before Ó Cuív’s run down the left flank, Sinn Féin looked set to commandeer the anchor position on the No side, from which it could hope to expand market share while in effect subjecting the opportunity for a broader discussion to a controlled explosion.

Ó Cuív’s proposals amount to an even narrower range of options than that offered by left-wing elements, but his intervention is infinitely more authoritative for being made by such a mainstream figure. Fianna Fáil, snookered by its own recent history in power, and feeling it had no decent possibility of doing anything except backing the Government policy, missed a trick in failing to issue a tactical call for the fiscal compact to be employed as leverage to obtain a debt write-down. Now the party can have it both ways. The Yes tactic in this referendum will be to scare people and accuse the other side of scaring people, while presenting the issue as a straightforward technical question, perhaps sweetened at an advanced stage with some minor concession on the debt burden.

By merely supplying a mirror-image of this tactic, the No side was immediately falling into the Government’s trap, implying that to speak of withdrawal, debt repudiation or other such broader options would indeed be both scary and crazy. Ó Cuív’s excursion will force more radical elements to go back to the drawing board, and will likely result in a far richer debate.

If we are as intelligent as both Yes and No sides are already beginning to tell us, why can’t we be allowed to talk about everything? Indeed, if we were to be corralled within a narrow understanding of our options, it is difficult to identify any persuasive argument for voting against the amendment.

But how could it be possible, after all that has happened, to look at any aspect of our economic circumstances without considering their context in our EU relationships and the operation of the euro currency? No matter how much the establishment tries to dress it up, there is an arguable case that our present situation was an inevitable outcome of our membership of the euro. It is not necessary to prove this case to regard as timely and beneficial the prospect of a far-reaching discussion of everything, with a vote at the end by which a verdict can be delivered.

This referendum should therefore be a ballot on what has happened not just going back to 2008, but back to 2002 and the introduction of the euro; and even to 1992 and our ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. It is not possible for the debate to become “bogged down” in “peripheral issues”. The way things are, virtually nothing is peripheral.

The fact that such a discussion might alarm “the markets” is part of the cost of the continuance of our democracy, and certainly should not be the last word on the subject. Indeed, the fact that “the markets” have acquired such a major say in our affairs should itself be part of the agenda of this referendum, as should the fact that the fiscal compact is clearly designed to promote for the benefit of markets the idea that the problems of the euro have to do with the unruliness of peripheral countries rather than a structural matter to do with the viability of the currency.

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