State must change lazy attitude to EU


"If Europe is a community in any meaningful sense, Mr Ahern needs to exercise better housekeeping," writes Medb Ruane

A year on from the defeat of the Nice Treaty, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice say that the next Nice referendum is as important as a general election. If Ireland doesn't deliver a Yes vote, according to Mr Ahern, it will provoke an unprecedented and unpredictable crisis in the EU.

Voting No would be like telling the applicant countries to "go to hell" and giving them a "kick in the ankles". Then investment would start flowing out and Ireland would be back in the slow lane.

Solidarity, however, has not marked the Government's attitude to Europe in practice. The gap between words and deeds suggests that the first place the Government need start work is within.

In the midst of speculation yesterday about the form of words Nice Two would take, yet another reminder came about the inefficiencies and sheer laziness which characterised the Government's campaign last year, and has characterised Ireland's relationship with Europe virtually since the Single European Act was passed.

Ireland hadn't got its act together on relatively innocuous regulations about standards for animal experimentation.

The administration ignored communications about it, and continued to do so even after the Government was taken to the European Court of Justice for not having adequate controls on animal breeding centres, potentially enabling undue pain and suffering to animals; failing to manage animal movements properly; and generally being so bored with the matter that if someone wanted to carry out monstrous genetic experiments on animals in Ireland they could do so legally because the relevant act dates from 1876.

The same story applied this year after Ireland was taken to the European Court about its treatment of children in custody. Minors could be sent legally to an adult place of detention. The court ruled in favour of the boy, ensuring that, in theory at least, no more minors will be sent to adult psychiatric and penal institutions. In practice, the Government has not created real alternatives.

The administration's persistent turning of a blind eye to Europe prompted MEP Mary Banotti to quote the tale about the Environmental Impact Assessment directive when she wrote to this paper shortly before the last Nice referendum. Ireland chose first to ignore the directive and then to get a seven-year derogation from implementing it. "Finally, three days before it was due to become law," Ms Banotti wrote, "a circular, without any explanation, was sent to the county councils informing them of its existence." A case of observing the letter of the law, not the spirit?

There are many more. Ireland routinely ignored or delayed chunks of labour legislation, maternity and paternity rights, human rights, pension entitlements and health and safety practices. It still resists introducing competitive practices which would help consumers have lower rates of insurance on items from cars to homes. In all the above cases, Ireland kept resisting until the last possible moment, even though the measures enhanced the lives and/or participation of Irish citizens at home.

Meanwhile, Mr Ahern's first government set Europe up as the fall guy, allowing myths to grow the better to enhance its own political profile at home. It would not be accurate to say Europe was to them as Saddam Hussein is to the US but it did no harm to have a benign "enemy" outside on which shortcomings could be blamed.

Charlie McCreevy played this game beautifully when he feigned a defence of Irish fiscal sovereignty against waves of attack from European financial institutions. The Forfás survey this week shows just how accurate European predictions of inflation and escalating prices in Ireland were.

If Europe is a community in any meaningful sense, Mr Ahern needs to exercise better housekeeping. Over the last year he has not introduced a single measure to smooth the interface between Irish and European objectives.

On Wednesday, for example, the Dáil discussed family law proposals emanating from Europe with real consequences for the children of separated parents, as well as the parents. The European rapporteur, Ms Banotti, was obliged to sit mutely through the discussion because it would take a referendum to accord Irish MEPs speaking rights in the Dáil.

It is telling that Mr Ahern chose to tackle the issues of abortion and neutrality as those that most bother Irish No voters. The biggest pay-off has more to do with securing his national political capital than it has to do with European enlargement - the Catholic right on one hand and the emerging Sinn Féin/old left votes on the other.

Ms Banotti issued a statement recently saying she believed only a miracle would save the Nice Treaty. For Mr Ahern, the miracle required is of loaves and fishes proportions. His new-found generosity to applicant states in the Baltic and eastern European regions is born of a belief in enlargement that may have arrived too late to be taken seriously. Nothing done; an awful lot more to do.