Bruce Arnold

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

Cox needlessly disparaging people's decision on Lisbon

He is still of the view that sovereignty can be hauled into line and made to give the 'right' answer on Europe

A rather rueful Pat Cox has re-entered the Lisbon Treaty debate, encouraged, it would appear, by Dick Roche's speech at the Humbert Summer School where he put forward what he described, at this stage, as a personal view to the effect that a second referendum would be required.

Cox agrees with this, though describing it as a "not especially inviting prospect'" but "the least bad option". He does so after fairly savage treatment of sections of the Irish media and an even more dismissive view of the Government and Houses of the Oireachtas as having "forfeited their freedom and entitlement to act".

Before dealing with these aspects, it is worth looking back at the position Pat Cox adopted early on in the campaign. After all, he is an undoubted 'big hitter', as a former president of the European Parliament.

His main entry into the Lisbon debate was the launch of the 'Yes' vote campaign of the Progressive Democrats.

This was in mid-May, when he used a pivotal phrase, talking about "the available Europe" being bad for Ireland and countering criticism by those who felt this to be true. It was prescient of him. This turned out to be a major problem, possibly the major problem, and subsequent events -- in the economy, employment, international affairs including the dismal performance of the EU on Georgia, within NATO and at the UN -- have shown that "the available Europe" needs a good deal of attention unconnected with the Lisbon Treaty reforms.

Pat Cox made a major statement in early June that was a highly impressive analysis of the arguments. It was probably better than any other presentation of the issues being addressed in the Lisbon Treaty, such as taxation, neutrality, right to life, subsidiarity, even the 'citizens' initiative' idea, where not less than a million Europeans could 'invite' the European Commission to act on their proposal!

This well-presented analysis was not persuasive. It was too heavily laced with attacks on what Pat Cox saw as "the enemy" -- Sinn Fein, Libertas and "ignorant" commentators on law-making processes -- and made the EU seem even more forceful and heavy in what it intended than had been accepted by ordinary people up to that point.

He talked of Irish sovereignty as "a gift won by freedom" -- a meaningless phrase in reality -- and was then very distressed when the Irish people exercised that sovereignty in a way deeply displeasing to him.

It still displeases him. He is still objecting to the way things went. He is still of the view that sovereignty can be hauled into line and made to give the 'right' answer on Europe and is aligning himself with Dick Roche, who has opened up the dangerous route of pre-empting the outcome of what is supposed to be a serious process of reflection over what happened in the Lisbon vote, and whether or not we should reconsider our sovereignty in a second referendum.

Two critical elements in that sovereignty debate and where it goes next are the media and the combined power of Government and Oireachtas.

Both are needlessly disparaged by Pat Cox. Having expressed admiration for the idea of sovereignty, back in May and again in June, his post-referendum view is that the referendum route to ratification was not just a mistake but an exercise in "serial abdication" and led to a dilution of Irish parliamentary democracy.

This is a perverse interpretation of the democracy enshrined in our Constitution, part of which is the legitimate and much valued use of the referendum to discover the will of the people.

In doing this, and even with the benefit of the one-sided Referendum Commission, the Government failed in its objective and in Cox's view "forfeited their freedom and entitlement to act". It was not a forfeit; it was a choice. It was made by the Government, supported by the opposition -- misguidedly, in my opinion -- and can therefore be laid at the door of the Houses of the Oireachtas. But it was not an abdication.

It was fundamentally in keeping with our constitutional democracy, and this should not be lost sight of during the coming debate about a second run at a question that has already been answered.

The second regrettable and offensive disparagement by Pat Cox is based on the fiction that there has been "a British print and broadcast media" conspiracy based on "an Irish homespun version of classic Tory British Euroscepticism". Worse still, it has been "aided and abetted by some Irish fellow travellers, whose visceral anti-EU instincts hold such sway in their home territory".

There are few enough at whose feet this charge could be laid. They include Kevin Myers, David Quinn, Alan Ruddock, Vincent Browne, Brendan Keenan, Mark Dooley and myself, possibly among others. 'Visceral' is to be directed by the interior organs of the body, heart, lungs, intestine.

I and my colleagues were directed mostly by our brains. I cannot think of any of them/us as "fellow travellers". The British media is read and consumed here. But "penetration"? It sounds, and is meant to sound, faintly illegal or improper.

Pat Cox makes few friends by this approach. Even if it is reluctant, his espousal of the idea of a second referendum is going to need the willing support of the elected representatives he says have "forfeited their freedom" together with the journalists who, in the main, recognise the qualities he has brought to European political life. I would advise, even at this stage, that it should not be attempted. But the desire for it seems unquenchable.