Result reveals audience for euroscepticism

Sat, Jun 14, 2008, 01:00

Campaign shows support base for a new party - will Libertas make a political play? asks Noel Whelan

IRRESPECTIVE OF the result, the Lisbon campaign would have left a significant footprint on our political system, coming just a year into the lifetime of the current Dáil, and just weeks into Cowen's term as Taoiseach. Indeed for three of the party leaders - Brian Cowen, Eamon Gilmore and Ciarán Cannon - this was their first campaigning test.

Cannon, the new Progressive Democrats' leader, sailed through the referendum largely unnoticed and was overshadowed by his predecessor, Mary Harney, which may set a trend for his leadership.

Eamon Gilmore by comparison had a very good referendum and was one of the star performers on the Yes side, establishing himself as a substantial political leader.

Gilmore and his party used the campaign to get in the face of their opponents, in particular Sinn Féin and Joe Higgins.

Gilmore's strongest impact was in the media. He had a canny knack of hitting the appropriate note for the Yes side at each stage of the campaign. When some union leaders started to suggest that the treaty threatened workers' rights, Gilmore quickly refuted them on air. When other union leaders tried to leverage domestic legislative change before calling for a Yes vote, Gilmore was unequivocal in his call for a Yes vote. In his position, he could not have done more.

The result is a significant blow for Cowen. Success has many parents, but failure is an orphan. If the referendum had been passed, Cowen would have had to share the credit for the Yes win with other parties. Now, however, Cowen and Fianna Fáil will inevitably attract the bulk of the criticism at home and abroad.

Even with a referendum victory under their belts, the summer and autumn months would have proven difficult for Cowen and his Government. Following the defeat, things will be more challenging on European and national levels.

Still, if the result causes difficulties for Cowen, the campaign may have had some benefits for him. He got an early opportunity to do a nationwide canvass tour. It was not the barnstorming rapid campaign style of his predecessor, but it had its own charm. It enabled a wider audience to get some picture of the relaxed electioneering approach that has consistently garnered Cowen such a large vote in his Laois-Offaly constituency.

The real mistakes in the Government campaign were made long before Brian Cowen became leader, albeit when he was tánaiste. The referendum was rushed. The treaty was only signed in December and for the following six months, politics was largely paralysed by the controversy which ultimately led to the fall of Bertie Ahern.

In that timescale and in that atmosphere, the Government didn't and perhaps couldn't lay the undercoat of information about the treaty required before the campaign commenced.

Nonetheless, in recent weeks, Cowen was seen to grasp the faltering Government Yes campaign by the scruff of the neck and lead with passionate and intelligent advocacy on the national airways. Cowen held his nerve when last week's Irish Times opinion poll suggested the referendum might be defeated and played a key part in galvanising the Yes campaign, but it wasn't enough. It seems now that the poll published last week may have left voters more at ease with the idea of voting No since so many others appeared to be doing the same.

The real winners were on the No side. Having learned the lesson of last year's general election, Sinn Féin wisely left Gerry Adams in the background. Instead, Mary Lou McDonald fronted their campaign and performed well. Even though she does not hold a Dáil seat, she is in reality the party's leader south of the Border. The requirement for equal coverage of both Yes and No voices may have created the opportunity, but McDonald used it well and will have done her chances of survival in next year's European elections no harm.

However, the most lasting impression that the campaign may leave could be on the party system itself. The campaign and the result have shown that there is an audience in Ireland for euroscepticism. If this can be combined with a right-wing anti-establishment vote and with that element of the electorate for whom what might be loosely called "Catholic family values" are a key determinant when casting a vote, then there is a small but significant base for a new political party.

Libertas has emerged from this campaign considerably strengthened. By adopting a position on Europe that was different from all the mainstream parties, Declan Ganley has emerged as a political celebrity. Like many successful businessmen-cum-politicians in other European countries, he appears to be enjoying the attention that politics brings. He has the financial resources to make a political play and he also has a battle-trained campaigning organisation should he decide to embark on a political enterprise.