INSIDE POLITICS:The Dáil must take the boldest of political steps - or else Ireland will return to being a client state of Britain, writes Stephen Collins
THE SQUABBLE between the Government and Opposition over a proposed Dáil commission to examine the pros and cons of the Lisbon Treaty only goes to prove that a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is doomed to almost certain defeat. At this stage it is hard to see how a confused and divided Yes side will be any match for a confident No campaign, awash with money and unhampered by any allegiance to truth.
Attempting to salvage Ireland's place in Europe and protect future generations from the disaster of the Lisbon defeat will be the supreme test of Taoiseach Brian Cowen. If a referendum cannot be won, the only solution is for the Dáil to find a way to ratify the essential nuts and bolts of the treaty, while allowing the electorate to vote again on the issues that caused such anxiety in the campaign.
The Taoiseach will have to summon up the nerve and vision displayed by Seán Lemass when he dragged the country into the modern world in the early 1960s, against some of the most basic instincts of his own party and a large chunk of the electorate. History has vindicated Lemass's decision to abandon protectionism and embrace free trade and the wider world of Europe.
Brian Cowen is now facing a challenge of similar proportions. The referendum defeat has launched Ireland down the slippery slope of a retreat from involvement in Europe and a return to the status of a being a client state of Britain. A second rejection of Lisbon would inevitably doom the country to that fate for generations to come.
The Government itself has made the winning of a second referendum almost impossible by compounding its botched referendum campaign with a poor tactical response to the Lisbon defeat. Instead of forcing the electorate to face up to the consequences of a No vote, Irish diplomacy went into overdrive to persuade our EU partners to tone down their response for fear of antagonising the Irish electorate even more.
The result is that the voters have no idea of how much damage has already been done to Ireland's standing and have no comprehension at all of the consequences down the line. All it has done has been to confirm the claims of the No campaigners that a rejection of the treaty would be a consequences-free decision.
The fact that it has been made crystal clear by all other governments that there will be no renegotiation and no reratification of the treaty by other countries has passed most people by. The softly, softly approach has simply made a second No inevitable.
So how can the Government find a way out of holding a second referendum while not ignoring the will of the people as expressed in June? The only way is for the Dáil to ratify the Lisbon Treaty while simultaneously opting out of areas such as the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which probably does require referendum approval, and the new defence arrangements whose misrepresentation prompted so many women to vote No.
Dáil approval, with opt-outs being put to a referendum later, would require the agreement of all 26 of our EU partners, but it could allow all member states to proceed with the new arrangements for the European elections next year as well as adopting technical changes in the way the union makes decisions. A deal to allow all states retain an EU commissioner would be easier to achieve under Lisbon than under the Nice Treaty and could be a selling point of the deal.
With the essential administrative elements of the treaty coming into effect for all 27, and Ireland excluded from the areas that caused the electorate most worry, time could be taken to allow Irish voters to consider some of the issues that generated so much heat during the campaign. Whether or not we finally approve them will not matter to the rest of Europe one way or another, just as the Danish opt-outs after the defeat of the Maastricht referendum there only affects that country.
Such an approach poses huge legal difficulties, never mind political problems of a high order. The Government's expert legal advice is that it cannot be done, as there are legal problems at EU level about opting out of elements of the treaty after the event, never mind potential legal problems at home in the inevitable event of a Supreme Court challenge.
Still, it should not be beyond the wit of constitutional lawyers to devise a solution to the problem. Our EU partners may not like it but for them, as well as for us, it is a far less worse option than the prospect of the treaty collapsing altogether. If the price that Ireland requires to ratify is some fancy legal footwork at European level then it should be possible to come up with a formula, empty or otherwise.
Of course the Government would also have political hell to pay for going the legislative route but it might not be nearly as bad as some Ministers think. After all the main reason given for voting No was that people didn't understand the treaty.
In that case a good proportion of the electorate might be relieved if the Dáil took on the responsibility of dealing with it, rather than opting for another long drawn out and confused public debate about issues people cannot, or will not, understand.
The Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, faces almost as big a test of his political credibility on the issue as the Taoiseach.
There is a great deal of understandable disillusionment in Fine Gael that after acting in the national interest and supporting the Government call for a Yes vote the referendum defeat was followed by a slide in the party's support in the opinion polls.
The reaction of some in Fine Gael has been to suggest total disengagement from the issue and to act as if it is now a Government problem. There is no indication that Enda Kenny is attracted by this short-sighted approach but he needs to get a grip on his party and lead from the front. Fine Gael has everything to gain and nothing to lose by coming forward with its own proposals about how to get the country out of the mess, rather than reacting to whatever Fianna Fáil ultimately decides to do.
During the Dáil debate on the Referendum Bill, back in the spring, Fine Gael Tipperary South TD Tom Hayes asked why it was necessary to amend the Constitution at all in order to ratify the Lisbon Treaty.
Since the referendum defeat many others across the political spectrum have begun to ask the same question and discuss whether there might be a legislative way forward.
There is an opportunity here for Kenny to take the lead and propose the solution. In doing so he would not just show that he is prepared to put the national interest first - he would also demonstrate that he has what it takes to be a genuine alternative taoiseach come the next election campaign.