Yes campaign needs prize-fighters, not gentlemen

Sat, May 31, 2008, 01:00

INSIDE POLITICSWhile they have certainly been active, the Yes side lack passion and determination, writes Mark Henessy

FORGET ABOUT the Referendum Commission, or the National Forum on Europe. If one is to heed guitarist Jim Corr, we should all turn to the Da Vinci Code for guidance on Lisbon. Today FM's Matt Cooper did a considerable service by offering airtime on Thursday to Corr, who in the space of seven minutes managed to create a world of shadow, threats and dangers.

Short of mentioning the Illuminati, and an albino monk with a taste for self-flagellation, Corr bought into every internet-hyped conspiracy of the last decade.

For those who have not listened to Corr's prognostications on the new world order, global government and dictatorship, a visit to the Today FM website is required.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights, he claimed, would allow the death penalty in time of war. It does not, but the European Convention on Human Rights has done so since 1983 and firing squads have not become common. If Corr was alone in urging people to be afraid of the dark, he would matter little, but it has been a definite strategy of the multi-pronged No campaign to spread confusion and inaccuracies.

So far, we have seen elderly voters scared by false accusations that Ireland's abortion ban will be weakened - partly at the hands of the Catholic far-right Alive! newspaper. The editorial line taken by the paper is its own business, but the failure of the bishops to distance themselves from it - because of their own fear of becoming a target in its pages - is astounding.

Coir, based in the same premises as the Mother and Child Campaign, has spread the calumny that Ireland will be forced to legalise prostitution and the sale of hard drugs if voters say Yes to Lisbon.

In the beginning, the Yes campaign treated Coir as an irritating little upstart led by serial No campaigner Richard Greene, though they have become rapidly disabused of that notion over the last week. Until recent days, the Yes campaign has failed to take on these untruths. However, Fianna Fáil's Micheál Martin and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny have privately warned over the last week that the ideas were getting a hearing.

Instead, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour - particularly the latter two — reacted furiously to criticism of their campaigns carried in this newspaper. Unfortunately, they were unable then, or since, to see a difference between activity and effectiveness.

Nobody has accused them of inactivity. In fact, there has been quite an amount. What there has not been enough of is passion and determination. Too often, Ministers such as Brian Lenihan have behaved as gentlemen when they should have acted like prize-fighters. In 1996 Fine Gael's leader, Michael Noonan, appeared on Questions Answers alongside anti-divorce campaigner and High Court judge Rory O'Hanlon, in what proved to be a key moment of that campaign.

Some in Fine Gael fretted about how the venerable judge should be handled. He was softly-spoken, polite and elderly. If he was pushed too hard, would the audience feel sorry for him? Noonan was having none of it. Waiting to be brought into the RTÉ studio, Noonan peremptorily dismissed those offering unwanted advice. "We're going to take him out," he said. And he did. And he was right.

The lesson needs to be learned by all of the Yes side, who, in most, but not all, cases, have become embroiled in dealing with wild allegations from the No side, and yet have failed to deliver the knock-out punch.

Eamon Gilmore gave a sign that he is prepared to mix it with Libertas's Declan Ganley on Thursday night, after the latter's ludicrous charge that the Charter of Fundamental Rights would allow three-year-olds to be jailed.

And Ganley is not that difficult to challenge. Last week, he made his arguments before the Association of European Journalists on corporation tax, where they were systematically taken apart. Other member states could, he said, agree a common business tax rate, if they wanted. True but so what? But they could hurt Ireland by levying so-called "destination" taxes. Untrue. Internal market rules alone would block that.

Following a week of unnecessary tensions, the main parties have finally declared peace, and Tullamore residents should today see Brian Cowen and Garret FitzGerald arm in arm.

A powerful force for the Yes camp back in the Nice 2 referendum, FitzGerald has not been so influential this time around, partly because he has been too sharp in his language towards people thinking of voting No.

People must be persuaded, not frightened or told that they are stupid, and FitzGerald is around the world of politics long enough to know that, and so are many others in the Yes camp. However, the anti-Lisbon arguments that voting No is a consequence-free action for Ireland that will result in inevitable and serious concessions to get the Irish onside for a second run are a serious untruth.

Undoubtedly, there will be a plan B, even if no one is quite sure yet what it will be. And, true, there would have to be some fig-leaf offered to Ireland to justify putting the question again.

However, this is not Nice 2. Then, Ireland got a copper-fastening of neutrality added as a protocol to that treaty, and a reworked constitution. The rest of the EU did not much care one way or the other.

This time, any serious alteration would reopen the full treaty. Europe would be involved in a further round of navel-gazing for ages to come. Ireland would have lost friends. Losing friends is fine, but it is not to be done casually.

There are reasons for voting Yes. There are reasons for voting No. But, please, let us put away the fears that barbarian Europe is readying to despoil Kathleen Ni Houlihan. And let us all leave the Da Vinci Code at the beach.