Government spells out its recipe for Yes vote


Ireland's à la carte approach to the European Union and to military neutrality got another outing in the Dáil yesterday, writes Denis Coghlan

As a stopgap measure, it was a clever attempt to reassure the public on the big issue that sank the first referendum on the Nice Treaty. A swing of 5 per cent would translate into a Yes vote for Nice in October and the Government was going for it. Irish military neutrality would be ring-fenced by a Constitutional amendment to keep us out of a common European defence arrangement. Unless, or until, the electorate changed its mind.

There was a whiff of the general election campaign about it all. On that occasion, the Government identified the big issues worrying the public - health, crime and transport - and promised the divil and all if returned to power. By the time election-day rolled around, the issues had been effectively defused.

By excluding membership of a common defence arrangement under Nice, rather than inserting a separate section on neutrality in the Constitution, the Government sailed between the competing demands of Fine Gael and the Labour Party and brought both parties with it. And it mollified its EU partners by leaving them free to develop a common defence policy without us.

Michael D. Higgins immediately claimed credit for persuading the Government to put a lock on our neutrality in the Constitution. And he asked Brian Cowen to confirm that, in future, ministers would consult the Oireachtas before trotting off to take decisions in Brussels.

Gay Mitchell was not quite so gung-ho. But he was happy with the formula which allowed continued participation in EU peace-keeping and peace-enforcement, on the authority of the Government and the Dáil.

Then, just in case there was any doubt about it, Enda Kenny welcomed the development and committed Fine Gael to campaign vigorously in favour of a new referendum in the autumn.

All was sweetness and light. The Minister for Foreign Affairs couldn't have been more accommodating. Mr Cowen welcomed greater involvement by our parliamentarians in the work of the Government in protecting Irish interests within the European Union and in making it more transparent. He looked forward to sitting down with members of the proposed select committee on European affairs in the autumn to devise new legislative arrangements.

Then John Gormley rained on his parade. The Green Party did not accept the bona fides of the Government in this matter, he said. The Government declaration and the wording of the referendum would not stop an erosion of our neutrality or US planes landing at Shannon. His party would campaign against the Nice Treaty.

Later, Sinn Féin and the Socialist Party sang from the same hymn-sheet.

Aengus Ó Snodaigh said the militarisation of the EU would continue if the Nice Treaty were ratified. But the Sinn Féin spokesman broadened the debate beyond neutrality and worried that a two-tier EU, dominated by the larger member-states, was being created.

Passage of the referendum would allow EU enlargement to go ahead, with a considerable deepening of its powers. But the precise shape of the new Europe, its powers and responsibilities, and its relationship with member-states, will not emerge until the signing of a new European treaty, probably involving 25 states, in 2005.

At that stage, the Government will have to come back to the people with a new referendum. In the intervening period, the Forum of Europe will lead a public debate on the precise nature of the EU that Ireland wishes to shape and take part in.

A lack of clarity about the Government's position on these issues contributed significantly to the rejection of the Nice Treaty last year. We were seen to be sleepwalking towards an uncertain future and the electorate shouted "stop".

It was only when the treaty was rejected that the Government woke up to its responsibilities. There were indications yesterday that, having got what Brian Cowen described as the "red herring" of neutrality out of the way, the various political parties will now get down to coldly and rationally considering our national interests in relation to the Nice Treaty.

Pretending that EU membership does not affect Irish sovereignty or independence has passed its sell-by date. Commenting on the single market 50 years ago, Jean Monnet declared: "The indispensable first principle of these proposals is the abnegation of sovereignty in a limited but decisive field. Co-operation of nations, while essential, cannot alone meet our problem. What must be sought is a fusion of interests of the European peoples and not merely another effort to maintain the equilibrium of those interests."

The European adventure proceeds. Ireland has benefited hugely. And we may finally be prepared to confront the reality that there is no such a thing as a free lunch.