When was the last time Phil Hogan had a good night’s sleep? It must be a long, long time ago. The household charge and the water charge were bad, but now the Minister for Misfortune has gone and signed the behemoth, the destructor, the Ender of All Things: another EU referendum.
Once the actual Compact was signed in Brussels last year, the Government’s position was heads-straight-into-the-sand and fervent and honest pray that, if it be the Supreme Court’s will, this cup would pass from them. No chance of that – when the bad luck is on you, it’s on your dog and your cat.
A referendum, then, and the thing settled once and for all. Of course, if the Government were interested in settling things once and for all, they would put a much further reaching referendum on the table, asking the sovereign nation if we wanted to be grown-up about the full and true nature of European Union. But no; as it has done on so many issues in its first year in power, the Government has shown extraordinary cowardice in the place where leadership ought to be, and chosen what it hopes to be the path of least resistance.
In that minimalist light, the Government’s task should have been simple. The pro-Treaty campaign should have been about putting the fear of the Living God in the nation, showing them an Ireland that is so horrible, bitter, poor and repressed that it could only have come about through either rejection of this miraculous treaty or else as the issue of a horrible drunken tryst between Mr Frank McCourt and Ms Peig Sayers.
Having terrified the nation with a vision they will never forget, it’s then an easy matter to just blow the whistle and shout “all aboard!” for the lovely EU Fiscal Treaty. The train is instantly filled with a majority of the shocked and relieved.
The Government have to conjour this Vision of Woe because their own and the previous government’s attitude to the bailout has left a hostage to fortune. The problem is this: borrowing, in and of itself, isn’t actually a bad thing.
All governments borrow. If you’re going to borrow money, then the current borrowing rate of 3% is manifestly better than 11% or more in the open market. The bailout is good business, and that’s clear to anyone sufficiently numerate to count the difference between three and eleven. You don’t even need to take off your shoes to do the math.
But the Government spent the past two years, in power and in opposition, saying that the bailout was the very end of Irish sovereignty itself. They can’t now turn around and say musha, it's not that bad at all now, when you think about it.
Therefore, the only option left is to say that while the bailout is a Very Bad Thing, shooting down the referendum is Peig McCourt, Frank Sayers, Worse than Cromwell, The End of Life as We Know It, or any combination of the foregoing. They’ve already committed to the Bailout as Disaster course; they’re stuck with it.
A pity, then, that that nobody told the Government about the election in France when they were creating their ogre. If François Hollande gets elected in France, he’s going to renegotiate the Treaty. That takes the crusher to the Ogre of Doom, and softens his cough rightly.
If the Government’s plan is a Fear-of-God campaign, where disaster will surely follow the fall of the Treaty, why hasn’t anybody told Monsieur Hollande? Monsieur Hollande does not seem to think that Doom, Death and Disaster are the natural and inevitable consequences of this Treaty not going through. Where does that leave the Irish Government, who must declare the opposite to pass their referendum?
It leaves the Government in the position of the poker player whose bluff has been called. At the start, when there was a cranks' alliance against the Treaty, the Government could appeal to the mature section of society. Thing is, the mature section like to holiday in France, and are fully aware of what an Hollande win might mean.
As for Éamon Ó Cuív’s solo running – it’s a nightmare for the establishment. Ó Cuív is seen as a crank in Doheny and Nesbitt’s, but he’s a man with a lot of respect in bars that don’t have wine lists. He should be underestimated at the Government’s utter peril.
In the interests of full disclosure, your correspondent will be voting Tá himself. While France is in a position to renegotiate, being rich, Ireland is not, being poor. Only thing is An Spailpín is generally in a minority in his opinions, and there are enough people out there who have been stoked beyond the rational in their fury that will vote Níl on the merest encouragement, out of sheer bitterness and betrayal.
And the Government won’t be able to blame their predecessors on this one. This mess is all of their own making. How could they not know the French elections were happening and that the Europe would be central to the debate in France? It’s incompetence on a staggering scale.