With the treaty hanging in the balance, FG may hold the key


Brian Cowen and Enda Kenny need to tone down the rhetoric in advance of the vote, writes  NOEL WHELAN.

VOTERS ARE suddenly being subjected to a deluge of literature and information about the Lisbon Treaty. Thanks to the Referendum Commission, the political parties and even some newspapers, most homes already have more guides to the treaty than they will have time to read before polling day.

The referendum poster war has also intensified. For what they lack in numbers, the No side has more than compensated with visual impact.

Posters depicting non-seeing, non-hearing and non-speaking monkeys and others depicting the 1916 Proclamation have proved effective because they play to the medium that is outdoor postering; they are uncluttered and have a single blunt message that can be seen and read from the ground.

By comparison, many political parties have somewhat cynically used the referendum as an opportunity for crude electioneering rather than referendum campaigning by putting up posters designed primarily to remind us who our MEPs are rather than what the Lisbon Treaty is about.

Indeed, the Progressive Democrats, and to an extent the Labour Party, have used the referendum to introduce their new leaders.

The parties would probably argue these posters are designed to leverage voter affection for specific politicians in the referendum campaign.

In reality, candidate-specific posters have little to do with mobilising votes on June 12th and more to do with hoping that voters remember these names and faces when they go to the polls in the local and European elections next year.

Last Monday, Eamon Gilmore emphasised that Labour wanted to appeal in particular to what he called the silent Yes majority. His party's referendum posters appear, however, to be only targeting those voters with 20-20 vision, so minuscule is the typeface of the "Yes" printed above pictures of himself or his candidates.

This referendum will not be lost or won on the lampposts. Neither will it be lost or won on the doorsteps. Canvassing has a role to play in referendum campaigns, but it is limited. Seeing the local TD out and about with referendum literature emphasises to party supporters that the referendum is vitally important and that they should go out and vote.

The party machine can, to that extent, have an impact on voter mobilisation.

If the referendum is passed, we can expect to hear many TDs talking about the thousands of doors they knocked on personally and the reams of leaflets they dropped. Nonetheless, while the ground campaign for this referendum will be one of the most intense ever seen, it will be nothing like those rolled out during elections.

Nowadays, referendums are won and lost in the media. After a slow start, the Yes side has finally begun to have a real impact on the airways and in newspaper coverage.

There is no doubt that the controversy about Bertie Ahern's finances, the announcement of his resignation and the four-week interregnum before Cowen became Taoiseach meant that the Government campaign was sluggish for the phoney war phase. Much ground was ceded to the No side and - notwithstanding the valiant efforts of Dick Roche - many of the No campaign's more outlandish claims went unchallenged.

Cowen himself is now leading the charge. He immediately put his national executive and parliamentary party on notice that the result was at risk and that a greater effort was required. More importantly, he made the Lisbon Treaty the main focus of his speeches during the homecoming events in Offaly and performed well on the issue at the Forum for Europe last Thursday. Last Saturday's TNS/mrbi poll showed a dramatic hardening of support for the Lisbon Treaty among Fianna Fáil voters, with 47 per cent saying they would vote Yes, reflecting a desire to give their new leader an initial win.

That said, there is still a sense that the Government side does not appreciate how precarious the outcome may be. In the four weeks before polling day, big political beasts need to be wheeled out at all major media occasions, preferably those who know and understand the intricate detail of the treaty.

Fine Gael's role in this campaign is now crucial on the Yes side.

Last weekend's poll showed only a third of Fine Gael voters articulating support for the treaty and this was despite the role which former Fine Gael grandees like Peter Sutherland and Garret FitzGerald have played in the Yes campaign.

The only explanation for this low level of support among Fine Gael voters is that many of them believe it is in the Government's interest for the referendum to pass and in their own party's interest for it to fail.

As the leading Opposition party it is, of course, Fine Gael's job to oppose the Government and one can appreciate why they would seek to do that job more intensely in Cowen's first weeks as Taoiseach. There is a risk, however, that the tone of Fine Gael's opposition to the Government may adversely impact on the party's efforts to persuade their own voters to support the treaty.

It would be in the interests of both Brian Cowen and Enda Kenny to tone down the rhetoric between their parties in the next few weeks if they are to achieve their mutual objective of passing the Lisbon Treaty.