Will the Irish tail wag the Lisbon dog?

It’s shaping up to be an important week in Ireland for the prospects of Treaty of Lisbon ratification.   As EU-watchers know, Ireland is the only country planning to ratify the treaty by popular referendum (although events in Poland could add a referendum there too).  While the treaty should in theory have little problem passing, there’s a history of hiccups going back to the initial rejection of the Maastricht treaty by the public before they were persuaded to reconsider.  But the backdrop is getting more ominous for this one.

There are several problems.  First and foremost is the air of scandal around Taoiseach (PM) Bertie Ahern.   Bertie has been obliquely touting his own candidacy for the position of permanent EU Council President (as opposed to the 6 month country rotations) that will be created by the treaty.  But that ambition seems a long way off now as he fights a rearguard action against the persistent lawyers of the Planning Tribunal.  The Tribunal — whose mandate is finding of facts and not indictment or prosecution — has found considerable circumstantial evidence that Bertie was in receipt of undocumented foreign currency transfers in the early 1990s, contrary to his own denials and raising an obvious question about the source of the transfers and what was expected in return.

Despite the growing evidence trail, Bertie shows no signs of resigning and has faced no calls from his Cabinet to do so, his coalition partners confining themselves to requests for public statements from him to clarify the apparent contradictions — with a further statement expected on Wednesday.  But the public perception is one of a growing farce, in which Bertie’s carefully measured updates in response to emerging facts generate new catchphrases (e.g. “political donation for personal use”) but do nothing to settle the question of where the financial flows through his bank accounts were coming from.  He can hang on because there is as yet no major break in the case (unlike that for the Brian Mulroney scandal in Canada, which bears a significant resemblance to the Irish case).

That’s where Lisbon comes in.  The government will be going to the country sometime this summer asking for a Yes vote — with the Celtic Tiger wheezing, the head of government mired in rumour and legal complications, and with perhaps the prospect of personal gain (the Council position) should the referendum pass.   This might explain why the government has yet to actually fix a date, thinking that the result could be so tight that every advantage could be critical. 

Hence the signs of growing unease in the pro-Lisbon camp.  In a few hours, John Bruton who served as Taoiseach 1994-1997 and who is now the EU Commission representative to the USA will give what is being billed as a major pro-Lisbon speech in his former home constituency of Meath.  Here is the text of speech as prepared for delivery.  Of interest is the emphasis on the advantages for small states of the EU and the gains in legislative transparency that the Lisbon treaty will bring in.  But the underlying motivation for the speech is a fear that the government is too focused on the tactics of getting the referendum through and losing sight of the public drift away from its usual presumptive pro EU position.

It’s tough to know how effective the No campaign will be.  It will have no political party support other than Sinn Fein.  The most high profile No group is Libertas, which has been the subject of media scrutiny about its funding.  It seems that the would be No campaigners have persuaded the likes of Jean-Marie Le Pen to stay away, fearing the backlash against their participation in a No campaign.

But at this point, with Bertie in full “I did not have Sterling relations with that developer, Mr X”, he could pulling the fate of Lisbon into his own political problems.  If there is a mess, it will be into hands of France, which takes over the EU Council for the 2nd half of 2008.  Nicolas Sarkozy had at one time indicated that one item on the agenda would be getting the Council presidency for Tony Blair.  He could have a more basic salvage operation on his hands. 

[Note: this is my first post on AFOE as a regular contributor; my thanks to the team for the invitation to join and I’m looking forward to a good interaction with the readers — P O’Neill]

6 thoughts on “Will the Irish tail wag the Lisbon dog?

  1. Welcome P o’neill, cant remember your irish blog, but do recognize it.

    delighted to finally see a post on this issue here in afoe (i even considered writing one).

    couple of opinions i want to add.

    1. Bertie’s Euro ambitions are over. all that talk of the eu presidency was before Berties court appearances.

    2. The irish are suffering from information deficit, espcially when the “No Camp” claim they want the same things as the yes camp.

    3. the irish voters (IMO) could easily vote down the EU referendom yet vote FF back for the next govermemnt (FF is berties Political party).

    4. i envy the culture of resigning when scandal hits you so prevalent in UK and mainland europe, unfortuantly like many things we have an irish solution to an irish problem..

    just my 2 cents worth, on what i consider to be a very important point for europe, but few acknolwedge it imo.

  2. Pretty tasteless pen name. I’d get a new one TBH.

    The no campaign are twenty points behind and have no money. The yes camp have billions of euros and all the political parties bar SF and all the newspapers. I don’t think you need to start doing all this expectations management – the Yes side are going to win.

  3. Pingback: links for 2008-04-02 | Nosemonkey’s EUtopia

  4. Pingback: Today’s events in Ireland | afoe | A Fistful of Euros | European Opinion

  5. erm…, P O’Neill’s been running an excellent blog under that nick for years, now. He’s the second Google result for it from my IP—I don’t think (s)he’ll be in a rush to abandon it.

    I suspect the no camp might just win if the turnout is sufficiently low, despite all the support for the opposite cap; remember the referendum on legalising divorce had 49% on the “no” side, despite similar political support, and government money for the “yes” campaign, which should be no longer available. On the optimistic side, the arguments I’ve heard from the “no” side this time have been much more half-baked than for the first Nice referendum, but I may well lack local perspective.

  6. The moniker reflects multiple influences, one being that the previous most prominent user of it was hopefully not going to need it in the future.

    Anyway I think the question going forward is whether Bertie has innoculated Lisbon from his own problems. It’ll be 5 weeks from his actual exit to the vote, assuming he sticks with his apparent commitment in the Dail today to have it on the 12th of June. I think Oscar rightly points to a paradox between FF’s electoral base and that for their ancillary projects like referenda. My own bias is that the EU could surely do without a new round of chaos about Lisbon after all the time it’s already taken to get this far, so I hope it passes. But it’s going to require a properly-run campaign with a FF-style war-room ready some of the stuff that the Nos will put out there (e.g. threats to neutrality).