Humiliated Government must try to clear up mess


INSIDE POLITICS:For the new Taoiseach Brian Cowen the Lisbon Treaty poll result is an unmitigated disaster, writes Stephen Collins

BRIAN COWEN and his Government have been humiliated on an issue that has been at the core of national policy for the past 40 years. Active engagement in the European project has brought great benefits to this country, but the decision of the Irish people to say No to the Lisbon Treaty has plunged the EU into crisis and stripped the Government of its authority.

More importantly, the decision of the electorate to ignore the advice of its leaders and to support a combination of forces ranging from the far left to the far right, represents a gamble of enormous proportion with the future welfare of the country.

The blushes of the politicians as they try to pick up the pieces may cause amusement, rather than sympathy, but the long-term consequences for the voters may be no laughing matter.

Things will never be quite the same again, no matter what deal is eventually patched up at European level. In simple terms, Ireland's position as the favoured child of the EU project can never be restored and we will have to live with the implications of that.

The implications for the entire European project are also negative, which will obviously please the No campaigners. Whether the bulk of the EU tries to move ahead without us or some complex deal is cobbled together to keep us in and allow the others to move forward, there will be serious consequences for Ireland.

On the domestic front the problem is that the Government's authority is now in shreds at a time when strong leadership is urgently required. The immediate problem will be trying to deal with our EU partners to find a way out of a debacle that has implications for all of the EU's 490 million citizens. It will also have to summon up the courage to take decisive action to cope with a deteriorating economy from a position of weakness.

For the new Taoiseach Brian Cowen the result is an unmitigated disaster. The people have refused to accept his leadership on the most important issue facing the country.

Recovering from that blow to his prestige will be difficult, if not impossible. The only consolation he has is that last week's Irish Times opinion poll, which forecast a No vote, showed that he was still held in reasonably high esteem by the public.

Cowen's first task will be to try and explain the Irish position to his EU colleagues at next week's European Council meeting in Brussels. They will want to know what Ireland is going to do to help them get out of the mess in which the Irish referendum result has landed them and to that there is no easy answer.

There is a big difference between the result of this referendum and the first one on the Nice Treaty, which was also lost. On that occasion complacency led many of the Yes voters to stay at home and the low turnout contributed to the defeat. The Irish government then got a deal allowing it to add a declaration to the treaty stating Ireland's position. That enabled it to be put to the people again and the answer was Yes.

This time around the turnout was higher and there is clearly no silent majority lurking out there to vote Yes. The other part of the equation is that there is no one clear reason for the No vote and therefore no obvious declaration or protocol that could be attached to the treaty to enable it to be put to the people again.

The question then arises as to whether some renegotiation of the treaty itself would be possible. After all there were some changes to its predecessor, the constitutional treaty, after it was rejected by French and Dutch voters. However, those changes were marginal and the governments of both countries then ratified the new deal without going back to their voters for a second referendum. That option is not available to the Irish Government.

If it quickly becomes clear that the other 26 members of the EU are simply not prepared to renegotiate the treaty, as the No side claimed they would, the Government could consider putting the issue to the people again on the basis that they had voted No on the basis of misinformation.

However, that would almost inevitably court a second defeat. They are simply caught in a bind, with no obvious way out.

A more likely scenario is that Ireland could agree with its EU colleagues to proceed with the elements of the treaty that do not require a referendum and opt out of those that do. The Danes did this after their voters rejected the Maastricht Treaty. It allowed the country to remain in the EU although its influence was restricted. One way or another, there is no easy solution.

The mess the country now finds itself in is largely the responsibility of the Government itself. It was the Coalition's job to deliver a Yes vote and it failed miserably. What was inexcusable was that many Fianna Fáil TDs did so little work in the campaign and that the party organisation across large swathes of the country failed to campaign at all.

Fine Gael and Labour also failed to deliver, but they are in Opposition and have neither the spoils of office nor the responsibility for governing.

It all started to go wrong months ago when the former taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, would not name a date for the referendum, although everybody in the political world assumed it would be in May or June. While Ahern may have had reasons to do with his tribunal testimony for being so cagey, it sent a signal to the electorate that they were being taken for granted and it started the whole Yes campaign off on the wrong foot.

In the meantime, the No campaign had begun to crank up. The Libertas campaign has been going since January and it was given time to develop momentum and put forward is arguments without any real challenge, as the Government dithered about the date. Then the change of Fianna Fáil leader distracted the Government and the media from focusing on the campaign.

Yet for all that there was still plenty of time for the Yes side to mount a strong a coherent campaign. Given that the first Nice referendum had provided sufficient warning that it would be extremely difficult to carry a Yes vote, there was no excuse for the lacklustre campaign mounted by the Government. Cowen was centrally involved in the first Nice referendum, as minister for foreign affairs, so he should have been keenly aware of the need to go flat out for four weeks as if he was fighting a general election.

Instead, he made a critical blunder early on by saying that he had not read the treaty. While he clarified that later by pointing out that he had been deeply involved in its negotiation, and that he knew its provisions intimately, the damage was done and a weapon handed to his opponents.

That blunder was compounded by our EU commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, who boasted that he hadn't read the treaty as it was incomprehensible. Hardly the best way of encouraging the voters to put their trust in the leaders of the Yes campaign.

Then in the vital last few weeks of the campaign Fianna Fáil decided to muzzle its most knowledgeable campaigner and most passionate advocate of a Yes vote, the Minister for European Affairs, Dick Roche. Because Roche has a tendency to be abrasive in debate, the powers that be in his party would not let him on the airwaves to argue the case. It was akin to a football team taking off its best defender because he is disliked by the opposing supporters. It was another indication of Government complacency.

It was not until The Irish Times poll jolted them into reality a week ago that Ministers started campaigning as if their lives depended on it. Even then it was only senior Ministers and a handful of TDs who threw themselves into the fray.

There is anecdotal evidence from all over the country of the party's failure to mobilise.

Meanwhile, the array of groups on the No side threw everything into the campaign. The fact that many of the No posters were barefaced lies is now neither here nor there. A majority of people simply voted No for one or other of the reasons listed on the posters: neutrality, sovereignty, abortion, taxation or the double-meaning turkey message.

There were many ironies about the No campaign. The unholy alliance of Sinn Féin and the jingoistic British press was just one of them. The net result of weakening the bond with the EU will inevitably be greater dependence on Britain as we approach the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.

Of course the Yes side had a more complex message to explain but, by comparison, its posters were still remarkably dull. The fact that so many of the mainstream politicians cynically used posters in order to promote their own image rather than the message also did nothing for the Yes campaign.

The victory for the No side has clear political implications. Sinn Féin after its setback in last year's general election is back on a roll. Declan Ganley has been given an opportunity to launch Libertas as a political movement and seek to become the Silvio Berlusconi of Irish politics, while all the smaller radical right and left groups now have demonstrated the kind of clout nobody thought they had.

Given the low esteem in which almost all the mainstream politicians and parties are clearly held by a substantial proportion of the electorate, anything could happen in the future. For the moment, though, whatever the result may portend in the longer term, the politicians who presided over one of the most disastrous campaigns in Irish history now have the responsibility of trying to clear up the mess.