The last thing Kenny wants is a referendum

Fri, Feb 3, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:Parts of the pact were explicitly drafted to give the Coalition a chance of avoiding a vote

ENDA KENNY and his lieutenants would do well to tell the truth about Europe’s new fiscal treaty. The Taoiseach and an assortment of Coalition figures deny the pact was crafted to minimise the prospect of an Irish referendum. That is exactly what happened, however, and it is no secret at all in Brussels, where the treaty was written.

Citing a high-level European official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, this paper reported two days ago that parts of the pact were explicitly drafted to give Kenny a chance of avoiding a vote. The official accepted the matter was likely to go to the Supreme Court but said the EU authorities hoped there would be no plebiscite.

Their reasons for dreading a referendum are the same as the Government’s – concern that any vote would go the same way as the first Lisbon and Nice referendums. And all the more so given the likelihood that many voters would relish an opportunity to inflict a bloody nose on the Government and the EU over their austerity and bank policies.

Kenny dismissed the story. He said he did not deal with anonymous reports, and insisted Irish negotiators were not told to circumvent the risk of a vote. But is that really sustainable? The simple answer is no. For one thing, complaining about an anonymous source is a canard. It’s standard practice in the political world for people to speak on an unattributable basis to reporters. It happens in Kenny’s Coalition too. Hardly news!

Then there’s the substance of the issue. The Taoiseach says Irish officials were given a mandate to maximise Ireland’s interests in the talks. Yet it is difficult to see how he could have been ambivalent about a referendum risk or indifferent as to whether Irish concerns were taken on board through the drafting process. In the circumstances, everything points in the opposite direction.

Bear in mind the damage that would be done to Kenny if there was a referendum and it was rejected. He would be hugely diminished – domestically and internationally – and questions would be asked as to his ability to plough on with the rescue programme.

Given the danger of defeat in any vote, not trying to avert the risk of a vote would smack of blithe incompetence.

True, fine arguments can be made about the will of the people. Yet the Government has a strong mandate. The people expect it to bring the State safely out of the bailout with its financial future secured. That is an excruciating task already, but any rejection of a referendum would make things much worse.

The Government insists a second EU-IMF rescue will not be required. But the absence of a support net from the ESM permanent bailout fund if the fiscal treaty were not ratified would seriously impede its return to markets. This would be deeply unsettling from the EU authorities’ perspective. They still hope the Irish bailout will deliver a badly needed success in a barren time for the euro. With that in mind, there is every reason to believe the authorities would tinker with the treaty text to make an Irish vote less likely.

A further question arises from remarks made by Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore. He declared two weeks ago that the provisions in the treaty had no “appropriate” place in the Constitution. If that is a legitimate argument to make before an Oireachtas committee, is it not equally legitimate to make it in a European negotiation? To win this argument, of course, is to lessen the chance that a vote might be needed.

The last thing Kenny wants is a referendum. Huge issues are at stake but it would be good to acknowledge the reality of the situation.


Arthur Beesley is European Correspondent