Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Bizarre 'solution' to Lisbon crux that means ditching democracy

My own judgment, for what it is worth, is that both sides were evenly balanced in the realm of truth and untruth

'PAUSE for reflection' -- the new political idea, an 'escape clause' put forward by Brian Cowen, over Lisbon, and by Mary Coughlan, over the National Pay Agreement -- means nothing of the sort.

Its true meaning is 'Reject what has happened, re-do it in another way, to suit us, not the people'. This has been evident in Brian Cowen's approach since the day of the Lisbon Treaty vote, and in Mary Coughlan's since early this week. It is the line followed by Micheal Martin, Minister for Foreign Affairs on Lisbon. It will soon become a mantra for those planning to govern us. That is, when they do so, at some time in the future. There will be much pausing for reflection until then.

I don't expect journalists to engage in the same kind of folly, and then compound the error by publishing the reflection on which we have all been advised to pause. Yet this seemed to be the purpose of Stephen Collins in his 'Irish Times' Inside Politics article on August 2.

In an astonishing series of 'chop-logic' paragraphs he told his readers that the Government "has made the winning of a second referendum almost impossible by compounding its botched referendum campaign with a poor tactical response to the Lisbon defeat".

He then presents this 'reflection' in the form of a question: "So how can the Government find a way out of holding a second referendum while not ignoring the will of the people as expressed in June?"

And answers himself: "The only way is for the Dail to ratify the Lisbon Treaty while simultaneously opting out of areas such as the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which probably does require referendum approval, and the new defence arrangements, whose misrepresentation prompted so many women to vote no."

Would that not be ignoring the will of the people?

The enormity of this 'reflection', which throws the June referendum out of the window and embarks, all over again, on putting through in another way the defeated 'Yes' vote intention, seemed so astonishing that I had to go back to beginning of the piece and find out how Collins had arrived at this argument and this conclusion.

The search was not easy. He describes the 'Yes' side in that referendum as "confused and divided" and the 'No' campaign as "confident, awash with money and unhampered by any allegiance to the truth".

This is arrant rubbish. The 'Yes' campaign was over-confident -- a fact represented by the unnatural alliance of the three main parties, making it anything but divided -- and it was endorsed by 'the wise and good' in Irish society, all of whom delivered a mangled message of fear and threat about what might result from a 'No' vote.

The 'Yes' side had the money, but did not spend it. The Referendum Commission was seriously awash with money -- €5m of it -- and spent it unwisely.

In that same first paragraph Stephen Collins then makes the point -- only about the 'No' campaign -- that it was 'unhampered by any allegiance to truth'.

My own judgment, for what it is worth, is that both sides were evenly balanced in the realm of truth and untruth. Both campaigns, which relied on scare tactics and insult, were as culpable as each other.

In paragraph three, Stephen Collins suggests the stimulating idea that "the Taoiseach will have to summon up the nerve and vision displayed by Sean Lemass when he dragged the country into the modern world in the early 1960s". Sean Lemass did not drag us into the modern world; he just played his part.

The actual groundwork for that transition was laid well before Lemass became Taoiseach by Gerard Sweetman, Fine Gael Minister for Finance in the Inter-Party Government, who read Ken Whitaker's economic development article in administration, recognised its value and then went to the Government.

He proposed Whitaker's immediate appointmentand he was made secretary in finance. He was then charged with the job of setting Ireland on the road to economic recovery through the implementation of the crucial 'First Programme for Economic Development'. Facts, Stephen, facts.

Stephen Collins writes of the referendum defeat launching us "down the slippery slope of a retreat from involvement in Europe and a return to the status of being a client state of Britain".

Apart from the fact that one of Sean Lemass's more important achievements was to end that 'client state' position and make Ireland a partner with Britain under the EFTA arrangements, there is no change in Ireland's relationship with Europe. We acted within our legal rights in saying 'No' and the more stuff that is circulated misrepresenting this view, the worse it will get for those who are 'reflecting' on how to reverse engines on our Lisbon Treaty decision.

It is a further nonsense to suggest that 'damage' has been done. Damage is, of course done, mostly by ourselves, and Cowen did a fair bit himself, much of it by omission, when in finance.

But we are as aware as other members of the EU that the ratification by other countries and our refusal to ratify are facts facing the EU and not some kind of Irish 'misbehaviour'.

For a political correspondent not to understand the reality of this expression of democracy -- apparently in short supply elsewhere -- is a questionable aspect of the whole article by Stephen Collins.

His proposal -- of the Dail deliberately bypassing the Lisbon Treaty referendum and reversing the electorate's decision -- is profoundly undemocratic and unconstitutional.

Whatever advice was given to the Government, by the Attorney General or round the Cabinet table by ministers, the decision was made to go down the safe and proper road of seeking direct democratic approval for the Lisbon Treaty. They failed to get it.

Such a course as Stephen Collins offers as a remedy for this failure would be a deliberate provocation of a constitutional crisis. Proposing it, as an outside contributor -- as Ruth Barrington did some weeks ago in the 'Irish Times', though I understand she is a trustee of the paper -- is legitimate enough.

But for that paper's main political commentator to take what can only be construed as a profoundly partisan viewpoint I find quite extraordinary.

The course Stephen Collins proposes, if taken, will make lawyers wealthy and enmesh us all in a quite bizarre wrangle over the survival of democratic reality in this country. But no doubt Stephen will write his way through it all.