Noonan spells out stark reality if referendum is needed


OPINION:Rejection of the euro treaty by Ireland would represent an unequivocal statement that we want out

ONE OF the more bizarre developments in the final week of the current Dáil session was Fianna Fáil’s attack on Michael Noonan for daring to engage in some plain speaking about the choice that will face the Irish people if a referendum is required on the treaty designed to save the euro.

Noonan spoke the plain truth when he said that if a referendum on the treaty is required it would present the Irish people with a simple choice of whether they wanted to stay part of the euro or not.

For this he was denounced by Fianna Fáil for “scaremongering”, attempting to stifle debate and allegedly insulting the intelligence of the Irish people.

This from the party that in government twice failed to carry a Yes vote in EU referendum campaigns. On both occasions Fianna Fáil led a campaign with an incoherent message that did not communicate the substance and seriousness of the issues involved. The result was that the people said No to both the Nice and Lisbon treaties first time around.

Both treaties were carried at the second attempt, but it took the energetic involvement of civic society groups and the leadership of respected political figures such as Garret FitzGerald, Pat Cox and Brendan Halligan to get them passed.

If a referendum is required on tighter fiscal rules for the euro zone there won’t be a second chance. The British use of the veto has ensured that it will not be an EU treaty so there will be no requirement on those who agree to wait for us to catch up. If we refuse to accept the new euro zone rules we can’t expect to remain in the single currency.

Of course, the treaty on its own will not be enough to save the euro: that will require a change of attitude by Germany and a new approach from the European Central Bank. However, a rejection of the treaty by Ireland would represent an unequivocal statement that we wanted out. We would have to live with the consequences of that.

Far from engaging in scaremongering, Noonan was doing his duty as a responsible politician by spelling out the stark reality at the very beginning of the debate on the new treaty before the arguments are hijacked by those who will always campaign for a No vote.

Fianna Fáil’s initial stance begs the question as to which side the party will take in any referendum campaign. The logic of the arguments from party leader Micheál Martin and finance spokesman Michael McGrath is that they should join Sinn Féin and most of the left-wing TDs in the Dáil and campaign on the No side.

One of the interesting developments in the past Dáil session is the way Fianna Fáil has increasingly reverted to old-fashioned politics and started to compete with Sinn Féin and the Technical Group in the politics of indignation.

It would make far more sense to compete with Fine Gael and try to win back all the middle ground it lost last February, but old habits die hard.

Whether debating the budget, the EU or the day-to-day business of the Dáil, you would never guess that Fianna Fáil spent the past 14 years in government.

It is a depressing commentary on Irish politics that Fine Gael and Labour are now implementing in office many of the policies they denounced in opposition, while Fianna Fáil in Opposition is denouncing the policies it was implementing just a year ago.

At least Sinn Féin is consistent in its stance in the Dáil over the past few years but, then again, if its record in government in Northern Ireland is taken into account, it can be accused of attacking in the Republic the kind of policies it is implementing on the other side of the Border.

One of the big commitments made by the Coalition during the February election and again after it took office was that it would reform the political system. While there have been some welcome changes to date, they represent a tinkering at the edges rather than fundamental reform.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that outside the 15 members of the Cabinet the rest of the Dáil has little or no role in the formulation of legislation. Until Oireachtas committees are given a real say in the drafting of legislation and the formulation of budgets, reform will be little more than skin deep.

Mind you, given the predictable way the Opposition behaves in the Dáil, it is questionable whether most of our politicians really have any interest in being legislators. There was outrage all round when it emerged that a committee of the Bundestag has sight of some budget provisions before they were presented to the Dáil but the shallowness of most of the debate in the Dáil when the budget was actually presented prompts the question about the kind of debate that would have taken place had there been real consultation at committee level.

In the course of a very interesting speech opposing the abolition of the Seanad recently, former minister for justice Michael McDowell had some pertinent things to say about the quality of debate in the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Having initiated major pieces of legislation in both Houses he concluded that better legislative work by far was done in the Seanad where debates rarely had to be guillotined because Senators made a genuine attempt to discuss the real issues.

“In the Dáil, by contrast, there was endless tabling and retabling of amendments designed to score political points rather than to make a genuine contribution to the improvement of the legislation.

“These tactics were used to create the political impression that legislation was being rushed through without adequate debate. Such time as the government permitted was routinely frittered away in the Dáil by tactics contrived to create in the public’s mind an impression that far more time was needed for each piece of legislation.”

The mindless tactics McDowell was talking about can be observed in the current Dáil day in and day out. It will take a charge of heart by TDs as well as genuine reform before things change for the better.