My Evening Herald column from today’s (Thurs May 24th) edition:
With less than a week to go the referendum campaign seems more and more to be about less and less.
On the face of it, if you believe the posters, the choice is to Vote Yes to achieve stability or to Vote No to end austerity.
But do any of us really believe these claims? Regrettably, like previous EU referendums the debate has been conducted at the extremes, not the centre. It was the case in the Nice and Lisbon referendums, remember those “€1.84 Minimum Wage after Lisbon” posters?
Mercifully, we have been spared the malign input of Cóir and Youth Defence this time. The are no loss, especially as most of them wouldn’t know a treaty from a tea-bag (to rob a line I recently overheard)
But this absence of any significant ultra right involvement on the no side does highlight a curious undercurrent to the campaign, one, which I suspect, may be a factor in how some people decide how to vote next week.
While the slogans maybe about the EU and the Euro the referendum has morphed into a proxy battle on the future of left / right politics in Ireland.
From the start the battle front was drawn up along left versus right lines.
On the Yes side you had the right and centre right parties: FG, FF and Lab (more about them later), the employers’ and business organisations, the farmer’s groups and the more established/mainstream trade unions.
On the No side you had the socialist and hard left parties, People Before Profit, Joe Higgin’s Socialists, Sinn Féin, the more radical trade unions.
While the entrance of The Declan Ganley somewhat clouded the the Left/Right delineation, it hasn’t ruptured it.
The sight of him sharing No platforms with irredentist left firebrands is a joy to behold, especially when you consider that they agree on virtually nothing, including Europe. Most on the hard left are euro-sceptic while The Ganley is avowedly Euro-federalist.
While passing the Fiscal Treaty will herald no major day to day changes – mainly because it just restates the centre/centre right economic orthodoxy in place since 2008 – it will cement it into domestic law for the foreseeable future.
It is this that the left fears and opposes most.
Passing the Treaty would recalibrate the centre of the Irish political spectrum a few points to the right. It won’t be a seismic or noticeable shift, but it torpedoes the Left’s ambitions of shifting it the other way.
It doesn’t vanquish them, nor does it make them to tone the rhetoric down. If anything, it will do the opposite, but in their hearts they will know that their ambition to shift Ireland economically to the left has been reversed.
This explains why the campaign from Joe Higgins, Boyd Barrett and Sinn Féin has been so fierce. But not as fierce as when its over and they start to target each other.
I am not predicting that their poll rating drops are set to drop. They won’t. They will probably rise as voters use them to express their disapproval of government parties going pack on pre election pledges.
But the Irish electorate is sophisticated. It is overwhelmingly aspirational. This applies across all social classes and communities. They want their kids to do better than they did. That decides voting intentions more than anything.
In the meantime Sinn Féin will continue to do well at Labour’s expense, after all Gerry and Mary Lou are saying now what Éamon and Joan were saying two years ago.
It is Labour who will be the biggest casualty. Polls showing 40% of Labour supporters voting No could have longer term ramifications for the leadership. But whatever they may be, they can be so where near as damaging as Gilmore’s infamous “Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way” slogan.
It may turn out to be the most devastating political slogan of recent times – devastating to its authors, that is.
What will we be voting about on May 31st? It is one of the toughest Treaty referendum questions to answer.
If you are to believe the thousands of posters that adorn our street lamps we are either voting yes to stability and jobs or voting no to austerity. A simple enough choice… or so you’d think? Unfortunately, as the campaign progresses, it is becoming clear that neither the Yes nor the No poster claims stands up to much scrutiny.
Do we really think we will suddenly achieve stability and more jobs if we vote yes? I suspect that even the most ardent of yes voters believes that to be case.
On the other hand does the most convinced no voter think that the austerity measures, including household and septic tank charges will disappear if 50% plus one of us votes no? I doubt it.
So what are we voting about?
The best answer I have heard so far has not come from a member of government, the ULA or Sinn Féin. It came, peculiarly enough, from a Euro bureaucrat, a former member of the board of the European Central Bank member. Not the type of person you would expect to speak with simplicity and clarity, yet he did.
Speaking on RTE Radio One’s This Week programme, Lorenzo Bini Smaghi described the decision before us with a cheque book analogy. After years of having separate current accounts, he explained, the Eurozone countries have decided to have one current account and one single chequebook between them for certain purposes.
The risk with this is that any individual country could abuse their access and stick others with the bill, so it is important to agree a set of strict and enforceable rules beforehand. These rules are set out in the Fiscal Treaty. If you want to be able to use the joint account, you need to agree the rules. Refuse to agree the rules and you won’t be allowed near the chequebook.
It is a simple and effective explanation.
What we are voting about is our relationship with the Eurozone countries. Do we want to continue and strengthen that relationship or do we want to weaken it. This does not mean that voting No is the same as being against the Europe, but the choice we are facing has become starker than we would like it to be.
Ok. So now that I have attempted to make the issue a little clearer and get behind the hype and hysteria printed on the posters let me now reverse the process and confuse it again.
While much of the debate has been about the EU and the Euro let me point to another level in the debate. Though it does not get mentioned so much, this referendum has become a proxy battle on the future of left versus right politics in Ireland.
Before The Declan Ganley entered the fray the battle lines had been drawn up along clear Left/Right lines.
On the Yes side you had the right/centre right parties (FG, FF and even Lab), the employers’ and business organisations, the farmer’s groups and the more conservative trade unions.
On the No side you had the radical and left parties, People Before Profit, Joe Higgins Socialists, Sinn Féin, the more radical trade unions.
A Yes result would recalibrate the centre of the Irish political spectrum several degrees to the right. While this would not vanquish the left, it would limit their scope and hem them in.
This could help explain why Sinn Féin has been so fierce in urging a No. A Yes vote would place a definite ceiling on their ambitions and make the centre/centre right economic approach the norm for at least the next decade.
This would leave the hard left /socialist factions with no influence, just sitting on the sideline spouting rhetoric – so, no change there.
The main casualty could be Irish Labour Party, no matter what the result. “Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way” may turn out to be the most devastating political slogan of recent times – devastating to its authors, that is.
Text of my Evening Herald column considering the consequences of the French & Greek election results for our forthcoming Stability Treaty Referendum vote
The EU political landscape has changed dramatically in the last 24 hours. The election of Francois Hollande in France and the defeat of the pro bailout parties in Greece will have repercussions far beyond the borders in both countries.
While both results will come as no great surprise to politicians who have been following the campaigns in France and Greece; it seems no one has given any serious thought as to what may now happen.
The focus of such thought, in so much as there has been any, has been on what Hollande might do to make good on his campaign promise to move the EU’s focus on to growth and investment.
There seems to have been very little thought as to what might happen in Greece. As recently as last week, pundits were citing polls that showed that up to two thirds of the Greek electorate accepted the need for a bailout.
Perhaps they did tell the pollsters that but, as we discovered last night, that sentiment did not transfer itself to the ballot box. The reality is that two thirds of Greek voters opted for anti bailout parties of various hues – from far left to far right, leaving the two pro bailout parties in tatters.
The net result, in the short to medium term, will be political stability that will make markets jumpy and herald problems for counties such as Spain and Italy when they go to the markets to borrow money.
The instability in the Eurozone that we thought had abated for a while looks like returning with a vengeance. M Hollande may not have time to set out his vision for a growth and investment plan for the EU – events may well overtake him.
Uncertainty may now be the name of the game in the EU and the Eurozone – yet the Government here seems to think that nothing that has happened in the last 24 hours has changed the mood music here.
To judge from Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s comments the coalition government here believes that the result there has no consequence for the Stability Treaty referendum. The Tánaiste was in Paris, in a signal of European Socialist grouping solidarity, with PES colleague M Hollande. This contrasts with the fickleness of the FG party chairman,Charlie Flanagan’s “Bon debarras (Good Riddance) Nicolas ! Bye Bye Sarkozy” tweet last night.
In Feb 2011 Fine Gael were championing their relations with Sarkozy, Merkel and the EPP – now they deny their former friends. You could almost hear the cock crow three times.
I am no fan of the Stability Treaty. Like others. I believe it is a missed opportunity. It fails to tackle the root cause of the problems in Ireland and Europe – a failed and dysfunctional banking system. But I am not convinced that voting it down brings us one millimetre closer to resolving our problems.
I am a reluctant Yes voter. I hope that passing it may give Germany the cover it needs to allow real reforms to the European Central Bank and the Euro architecture,
For that reason I want to give the Treaty every chance to gain public support. I do not believe that ploughing ahead with a vote on a Treaty that may yet be further reformed – or even improved – serves any purpose. I genuinely fear that going ahead against a background of uncertainty and volatility puts the outcome in doubt.
It is not that I think the combined forces of Sinn Féin and the ULA will convince the people to vote No, but rather that the public will opt not to endorse a Treaty that may be defunct within weeks of passing it.
This is not a new fear. I wrote about the imprudence of holding the vote this early on my website some weeks ago. While I know many would suggest that postponing the referendum sends out the signal that the Government is weak, I think that is better than landing itself with a no vote based on bad timing.
While the Tánaiste is technically right in saying that we wouldn’t need to come back and vote again if a growth package were eventually added to the Treaty – can he really justify putting only half the question to a vote? Would it not be wiser, and more democratic, to wait a few months and put a definitive position to the people?#
It would require more courage and leadership to postpone the referendum than proceed with it. This just may be the reason why it doesn’t happen
May 7th 2012
The attached research paper Report on EU Attendance was conducted by Markus Johansson and Daniel Naurin of the Dept of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg and presented at the SNES spring conference in Uppsala 22-23 March 2011.
SNES (Swedish Network for European Studies in political science) is Sweden’s leading research network dealing with questions of European politics and governance.
The study examined 808 EU Council meetings between 2000 and 2010 and found that Ireland had one of the highest average Ministerial attendances at Council of Minister’s meetings, 5th out of the 27 member states.
The authors of the study argue that attendance is an integral part of EU engagement and reflects the priorities of the governments involved. Ireland’s position as 5th highest out of the 27 member states from 2000-2010 is a testament to Fianna Fáil’s committeeman to Europe and strong engagement
This exposes the hollowness of claims repeatedly made by Government Ministers and the Taoiseach that Fianna Fáil failed to attend EU meetings.
If you think Fine Gael or Labour party backbenchers have it tough; spare a thought for Fianna Fáil’s sole backbencher: Éamon Ó Cuiv. He has been rarely out of the headliners since quitting as his party’s deputy leader and communications spokesperson.
Though he served as a Minister for the duration of the 1997 – 2010 Fianna Fáil led governments, it took a few disloyal acts as a back bencher to bring him to some form of public fame.
His newly found rebellious streak comes as a bit of a shock to those who remember his ministerial days, particularly his almost eight year stint as Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.
That department’s acronym (D/CRGA), coupled with his peculiarly laconic style, earned it the title Craggy Island during his tenure – though whether this was a reference to Fr Jack, Fr Ted Crilly or Fr Dougal was never fully established.
His reinvention as a latter day rebel is not his first metamorphosis. Despite his Man of Aran manner and demeanour he actually hails from the leafy and affluent, Dublin 4. His success at portraying himself as the archetypal westerner possibly owes as much to his lineage as it does to his conscious efforts.
His excellent track record as a public representation in West Galway, has gained him much respect in the party: almost as much as his position as Dev’s grandson.
This is the Catch 22 he seemed to have missed. While the reduction in the size of the parliamentary party has made him a bigger player, the cachet his political heritage confers is also somewhat diminished. The events of the past few years have reduced the currency value of dynasties in the new leaner Fianna Fáil. Isn’t the concept of dynasty incompatible with a truly republican party?
His outspoken comments on Europe, urging the party to a more Tory-esque euro sceptic position have not been the rallying cry he may have hoped for. Many share his view that Europe has not been working together in partnership or solidarity. They see that Europe’s “failure to act decisively and cohesively damaged its reputation and standing amongst its own citizens”. But they do not see voting No as the logical or sane answer to that problem.
I put that last line in quotes as, significantly, it does comes not from an Ó Cuiv speech, but rather from Michael Martin’s February 9th address to Institute for International and European Affairs, Dublin.
Ó Cuiv’s belief that he is the lone voice criticising the EU does not stand up. Despite his contentions, voting Yes does not require one to draw a veil over the glaring flaws in what the EU have done in addressing the European banking and economic crisis.
While many in the party may be prepared to allow him the occasional euro-sceptic outburst, they draw a definite line at his idea that Fianna Fáil should be cosying up to Sinn Féin. That is simply not on the table for the vast majority of the party’s public representatives at national and local level.
While some see Ó Cuiv’s grá for such an arrangement as a product of the shinner’s relative weakness in his bailiwick, others suggest it exposes his ill-founded, romantic notions of reuniting republicanism.
The Shinner’s provo-ism is the antithesis of Fianna Fáil’s republicanism. The two strands are simply incompatible and have been for generations. For Ó Cuiv to imagine that they are reconcilable does a disservice to those who adhered to the constitutional republican path and underestimates the ambitions of those who espoused the provo alternative
The irony is that Ó Cuiv’s truculence runs counter to the approach his grandfather adopted. Dev believed that being an elected representative of a political party brought responsibility and required discipline. The party decided its policies behind closed doors and everyone stuck to the party line, whether they personally agreed with it or not.
While there is no desire to grant Ó Cuiv the martyrdom that some think he seeks, he may yet force their hand and find himself banished to a Craggy Island of his own making.
Though the early polls have been positive I am getting a sense that the No side may picking up some momentum as we near the May 31st polling date for the Fiscal Stability Treaty Referendum.
One of the main grounds for this sense of foreboding may indeed be the May polling date itself. I fear having the poll this early may prove the biggest threat to a Yes outcome for three reasons:
1. It allows no side to raise the prospect of a second referendum later in the year. The more astute and sophisticated side of the No campaign is starting to run an argument that goes as follows: We have voted twice on the last two EU treaties.In each case we have come back with a better deal the second time. This Treaty does not come into force until January 2013. We have the time to Vote No now and use the following months to go back and get a better deal and then Vote Yes later in the year. A late September polling date would have denied this argument to them
2. This Sunday see’s the first round of the French Presidential Elections, The Second roubnd of voting will be two weeks later at the beginning of May. While Sarkozy has had a good campaign to date and has closed the gap in the first round the polls there still suggest that Francois Hollande will win the Second Round by approx 55:45.Hollande is standing on recovery platform that rejects Sarkozy’s austerity plan and talks of renegotiating the Fiscal Compact,
While this position may be dismissed as a Gallic version of Gilmore’s “Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way” – ie a promise that sounds good in the campaign but doesn’t survive past polling day – it does look like Hollande is serious. His determination to imeddiately set out a renegotiation the Fiscal Compact to include a growth programme, Euro Bonds etc has probably been strengthened by the attempts of Merkel and other Centre Right EU leaders to snub him.
We will be going to vote during the first days of a Hollande presidency, the background noise to ouyr vote to pass the existing threaty will be his moves to renegotiate that very treaty – almost making a farce of that vote. The politically astute move for our Government would have been to hold off until September and see if Hollande will make a difference.
3. The one great lesson learned from previous referenda, particularly NIce I & II and Lisbon I & II is that the public needs a longer run up/lead in period to tease out the issues. The traditional three or four week campaign has been found to be insufficient, particularly in the absence of “on the ground” campaigns.
Though polling day is about six weeks away there is little sign of that debate is starting yet. Will the Refendum Commission have the time to do the job? Based on the last referendums, it would certainly appear not. The Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs had a thirty minute slot on RTE 1 last Saturday where he could have used 5/6 miinutes to explain why voting Yes is important. He didn’t. He chose instead to just give the poll a passing reference, 125 words in a script over 3100 words long. “referendum” featured only once in his script.
While the timing of the polling day is just one factor, it may prove a crucial one. The Treaty should stand or fall on its own contents alone. I am on record here as having my own qualms about the Treaty (see my post here on why I will be a reluctant Yes voter). The debate will be essential. This vote is not like others, we do not have a veto, we cannot delay or deny the progress of this Treaty by our vote alone. The EU has been horrendously slow to act to save itself from the start of this crisis. It has chosen the path of half measures over swift decisive action – usually at the behest of a Franco-German leadership that put domestic political considerations ahead of pan european ones. But we should not be blind to the developing EU real politik.
The appointment of Simon Coveney and Joan Burton as the Fine Gael and Labour campaign directors somehow does not imbue one with a sense of confidence. Coveney’s nomination does echo Charlie Haughey’s appointment of Paddy Lalor as Fianna Fáil national director of elections – a move that spurred the late Frank Cluskey to comment: “There’s confidence for ya”
I have just been watching Labour’s Dominic Hannigan on The Week in Politics and was amazed to hear him claim that Labour didn’t know the magnitude of problems facing Ireland during the General Election campaign last year. He offered this as the reason why they have abandoned so many of the promises made in that campaign.
It is the same attitude you hear when Ministers trot out the glib little phrase “we inherited this from the last government”.
I am long enough around in politics to know that the Government will be using variations on this theme for a long time to come. When there is a change of government, particularly on the scale we saw last year, the incoming Government is naturally going to dump on the previous one.
It happens everywhere. In the UK, although he is well now two year ins office, David Cameron starts off almost every reply to Prime Minister’s questions saying how he is trying to tackle the problems left by Gordon Brown.
Doubtless he will continue to trot out the line for a while more, though polls there are suggesting the British electorate are starting to tire of it,
I understand that the Taoiseach and his assortment of Ministers are going to spend the next year or more prefacing every utterance with the “it wasn’t me, it was like this when I got here” line of attack.
I just wish they would drop the “inheriting” hook and find a line that does not make them sound as if they are some unwilling group plucked from obscurity and press-ganged into taking on the Ministerial offices, salaries and cars against their will.
Most people “inheriting” a situation have found themselves in that space despite their wishes, not because of them. As far as I know you cannot legally inherit from someone you have helped to do in, even when that someone was already doing a good job of doing themselves in.
This government came into office knowing the situation they faced full well. They set it out clearly in their election campaigns and went to the people asking them for their mandate to tackle the enormous problems we face. Labour’s Finance spokeperson said the economy was banjaxed:
The two parties now holding the levers of power have every right to talk about the size of the problems, the need for difficult decisions and to throw a few belts into the outgoing government for good measure.
They should not, however, be talking as if this all something that has taken them somehow by surprise. They also forfeit the right to lash their predecessors on every single issue by effectively taking the same policy approaches.
The health issue and the fate of local A&Es is a good case in point. There is no credibility in the Health Minister outbidding the outgoing Government by writing open letters to the voters in February saying “Fine Gael undertakes to retain the emergency surgical, medical and other health services at Roscommon Hospital”, only to reverse that commitment a few weeks later.
The Taoiseach only adds salt to the wound by offering the defence that when Dr Reilly “…was contesting the general election he was not in possession of the informati
on about the difficulties surrounding the recruitment of non-consultant hospital doctors.”
Over the past few days (Tues Apil 11 – 13) I ran a simple poll on my website www.derekmooney.ie . In it I asked people to select the three government ministers they believed were performing best in office.
About a week ago I wrote a piece for the Herald defending the government giving politicians a three week break for the Easter.
This was, I argued, a welcome opportunity for Ministers, TDs and their advisers to do some of the other boring, but important, work and also to take some time to reflect and think about the issues of the day.
Talk about getting it wrong. No sooner has the ink hit the pages than almost everyone in Government was out in public tearing strips off each other.
The whole cast of characters were involved: Environment Minister: Big Phil Hogan, Health Minister: James “Capt Birsdeye O’Reilly, Finance Minister: Michael Noonan, Arts Minister: Jimmy Deenihan, Welfare Minister: Joan Burton, Communications Minister: Pat Rabbitte, Justice Minister Alan Shatter, FG Party Chair Charlie Flanagan plus a few Government backbenchers including Labour’s Colm Keaveney and Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty.
The week before had seen some on the Labour side saying that Big Phil could have handled the whole household charge thing a lot better. Just as it appeared that that particular row had run its course, news broke that Big Phil was meeting with Moriarty Tribunal favourite and Tipp North TD, Michael Lowry only a few days after the publication of that Tribunal’s final report.
Within hours other Ministers, namely Birdseye O’Reilly and Noonan, were confirming that they too had meetings with Lowry. This was all too much for Joan who questioned the wisdom of this. So too did Jimmy, but more subtly.
Joan’s words riled Charlie who went on Twitter to ask if Joan had a Government death wish. Regina subsequently went on Radio to say Charlie was right and that Joan was wrong. Others thought Joan was right, including Colm, who also went on to Twitter to call the judgment of senior figures in Fine Gael into question.
Meanwhile Pat spoke to the Sunday Independent to say that he was frustrated by the “interminable delay” in bringing prosecutions following Mahon and Moriarty. Within hours of the paper hitting the breakfast table Alan had issued a broadside that had Pat in mind when it stressed the importance of not making public comments that might prejudice proceedings.
By lunchtime the Taoiseach was doing a bad Harry Enfield scouser impression telling everyone to “calm done”. All that was missing was him donning a Kevin Keegan wig and finishing off the interview saying: “Dey do do dat dough don’t dey dough”
Not only did all of this happen in just one week, it happened in very quiet week at that. If this is how the members of the Government deal with minor matters, Lord help us when the big problems come. And come they will.
The Government has had a fairly charmed existence since coming to office. While things are clearly not improving, they have not had to face any genuine crises or policy dramas.
Both parties have endured some setbacks early into their term. but none that really tested them. For Fine Gael it was the losses in the presidential election and referendum, plus the Roscommon hospital fiasco. For Labour it was the loss of three TDS, including a Junior Minister and a by-election winner, though these were offset by their man winning the presidency.
The handling of the household charge suggests they lack a certain deftness of touch, yet it pales into significance against the problems they may yet face in the years ahead.
How will a government that descends into public squabbling and faction fighting at the mere mention of the names of Moriarty Lowry or O’Brien cope if Merkel Draghi or Barroso decide to turn the thumbscrews on Corporation tax or whatever?
Have they all forgotten that they will be asking the people to take their collective advice at the end of May and vote yes to the Fiscal Compact Treaty? Might it not help their case to give the appearance of knowing what they are doing and all pulling in one direction?
As to the internecine squabbling, there are several systems in place to stop such petty rows escalating and getting into the public arena. One is called common sense. Another is the special adviser/programme manger system. Isn’t it time to get working on both?