Monday, December 12, 2011

Anyone for Leadership?

How craven is the Government’s attitude to the inevitable EU referendum? It’s not quite as craven as the man in the women and children’s lifeboat but goodness gracious, it’s a long step away from the bold Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock in terms of inspiring the nation and giving light in darkness.

It seems clear that the Government will spend from now until the final EU deal is settled praying that God will somehow intervene and save them from having to bring another EU referendum before the people. The Government will not be alone in this; the entire Irish political establishment will be praying every bit as hard.

In a functioning democracy, the referendum would be a matter of course. In a country where there is political talent and will, they could even write a new constitution that would prevent these constant referenda clogging up the path to progress.

But Ireland is not a functioning democracy. It is a state governed by a tiny elite. A tiny elite who have zero interest in leading the people. A tiny elite who have zero interest in explaining what the European Union is and how Ireland has benefited immeasurably from it since 1973.

A tiny elite who prefers treat the sovereign people as mushrooms, explaining the EU only in terms of either a gravy train that hands out free loot (1973-2011) or an oppressor who grind the helpless Irish under a jackboot, in the face of which the sovereign people and their glorious government are equally helpless (2011-present day).

Successive Governments have refused to make it clear to the people just how Ireland integrates in terms of the EU whole, and just how high we are punching above our weight. Instead, the nation is told to eat their sweets and don’t be worrying their little heads.

Ireland has become a sink estate of the EU, living on handouts with not only no interest in bettering its own situation, but with no idea if or how that situation can bettered in the first place.

Which is how the latest mess has come to pass. Now the political elite has to go the electorate and present another referendum to the people. Another referendum that will be impossible to understand, at a moment in time when the people are very far from being receptive.

That was one of the problems with Lisbon. Referenda work best with simple issues that can be clearly expressed. Treaties, or, the Lord save us, “compacts,” can only be properly understood by constitutional lawyers. Joe Citizen hasn’t a chance.

It should never have come to this. The political class should have seen this coming since Maastricht twenty years ago, if not since ascension in 1973. Start as you mean to continue.

But they didn’t see it coming. Not even kinda. The implications of Maastricht didn’t even get a mention in Seán Duignan’s memoir of his time as Government press secretary of the time.

The chief concerns of the Government in June 1992, when Maastricht was passed, was whether they’d have to devalue the punt or what would happen at the Beef Tribunal. The Beef Tribunal!

Maastricht went through the Irish political system painlessly, without raising a single flag. The patient never felt a thing.

John Waters rightly called out Olivia O’Leary when she was doing to post-hoc reasoning on her radio piece for RTÉ’s Drivetime recently. The only people who objected to Maastricht were loopers like the Democratic Left and the late Ray Crotty. Every else just said: “Free loot? Where do I sign?”

When people become adjusted to a continual flow of European wine and honey, you can understand how they might get cranky when that flow is suddenly switched to cod liver oil. And the longer the political elite puts off having a birds and bees conversation with the nation about the nature of the European Union, the harder it’ll be to save the day.

Because the day can still be saved. The Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil officer class understand how Europe works, even if they have been shockingly remiss in bringing the rank and file with them. Labour’s days of opposing Europe are well behind them and besides; a EU referendum would be a good chance for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to show the statesmanship he wittered on about so tiresomely before the election.

The floating joker is Sinn Féin of course. Sinn Féin have been quiet since Friday, as they do their accounting on how the land lies. Good for them.

Sinn Féin have been anti every EU referenda. It will be interesting to see how they could oppose this one – and thus side with David Cameron, leader of the one country in Europe which has been less well served by its leaders about the EU than ourselves.

Kicking Sinn Féin has only recently been replaced by kicking the pope as a Fine Gael favourite pastime. Will even the chance to put Gurry on the hot seat for while tempt the Government to say to hell with it, we’ll have a referendum and live or die by it? Or will they stay hiding under the table, hoping the storm will pass?