Bruce Arnold

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

Brash Martin shows he has yet to master the art of protocol

The Department of Foreign Affairs makes up most of its protocol as it goes along. We don't do protocol. We've always done the opposite. We think a casual, 'Whatever-you're-having-yourself', approach is rather charming. The British, masters of the art of protocol, have it for almost everything and have taught it to the rest of the world. This teaching has been least successful here, where we have spent most of our history trying to undermine the protocol of our nearest neighbour.

The department, and the Government, made a mess of protocol during the early days of Mary McAleese's presidency. They let her run wild, and, being a feisty kind of lady, she ignored protocol on a number of occasions, causing some embarrassment. She has since learnt; the department have not.

The department, and the Government, made a mess of the protocols surrounding Bertie Ahern during the time when Celia Larkin was his partner. She tumbled into being 'the First Lady' in politics. She was swept into encounters with the King of Morocco. Her sang-froid helped her through where there was no protocol.

With Micheal Martin, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, protocol, this week, was like a cudgel in the hands of a rapparee. He flailed around, repeatedly bashing the country's State Guest, President Vaclav Klaus, on the head with this strange weapon of opprobrium, leaving a trail of embarrassment and insult. In two days he did more harm to himself, his Government and the country than I would have thought possible. And the Government, in light of the latest opinion poll, cannot afford more self-inflicted wounds.

Martin does not understand protocol, though he uses it with brute force, lashing out intemperate blows. These deeply offended the people who met the highly intelligent, truthful and diplomatic Czech President and his friendly and pleasant wife. Martin must have seriously embarrassed many in the Department of Foreign Affairs who spend a good deal of time trying to control the raucous, gross and ill-bred politicians who barge into areas of formality and make a mess of things. None do it with more rude vigour than members of Fianna Fail.

Let me tell the minister in this sensitive, vital department of State, what protocol means. Protocol is diplomatic etiquette. Etiquette consists of the conventional rules of personal behaviour in polite society. It embraces ceremonial for State visits. It consists of a largely unwritten code restricting professional men in what concerns the interests of their brethren or the dignity of their profession. To be diplomatic is to be uncandidly subtle. It includes, politically, being an adroit negotiator.

Were I Brian Cowen, and on the basis of his performance this week, I would sack Micheal Martin. Unfortunately, Cowen can't afford to do it. His own head is in danger at present. Nor does Cowen have sufficient respect for protocol himself to see the enormity of the breaches committed.

What Martin did was significantly worse than bad manners. Politically, it was grossly biased. As Declan Ganley said in his speech at the dinner he gave for the Czech president, "When the current president, Nicolas Sarkozy, visited Ireland in the summer, after our referendum, he was outspokenly on the minority losing side. Yet we ensured he talked freely to those he wanted to meet, including those who had won and represented the majority." Addressing his main guest he went on: "You, Mr President, as the next president of Europe, from January, have had more difficulty, but happily you join us for this event tonight which is immensely important for my guests and for myself."

The architect of that earlier, Sarkozy visit was Micheal Martin, working with his leader. He made a pig's dinner of it. Sarkozy was coming, then he wasn't coming, then he changed the date; he was seeing the 'No' people, then not seeing them, then saw them. Though they represented the majority will of the Irish people, they were treated like freaks in a circus. They were there to be assessed in order to reverse what they had achieved.

Those same people have been regularly insulted since the vote, as they were before it. At the time of the vote Brian Cowen went to Belfast, met Gordon Brown, and said enough to hasten forward the idiotic British decision to ratify the Lisbon Treaty in defiance of the constitutional decision we made. We are Britain's third-most important customer, friend over centuries and colleague in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. Should we lie to them? That was Cowen's use of the cudgel of protocol.

President Vaclav Klaus, who is Sarkozy's successor, expressed a similar, personal and forceful desire to meet with the leader of Libertas in order to extend his understanding of the Irish mind on the Lisbon Treaty. He already admires us, as do many others. He may also have felt another desire -- to give support to Ireland's majority on this issue, who have been treated with treacherous disdain.

It was dishonest of angry politicians to use protocol as a weapon to attack those who defeated and embarrassed them. Almost everything else that Micheal Martin and Brian Cowen have said about their 'respect' for the will of the Irish people on Lisbon has been dishonest. Behind the scenes they have tried to undermine and rubbish that considered referendum judgment made last summer. Doing this is seriously in conflict with a constitutional requirement on the Government to support the democratic decision of the people made last June.

Protocol was also breached by the Irish Times, in publishing the complete guest-list of Declan Ganley's dinner. It was of no consequence to me, since I had declared I would be at the dinner to RTE cameras beforehand and this fact was carried as a news clip that evening. But private guests, at a private dinner? Is this a new standard of investigative intrusiveness? For the curious, I am not a member of Libertas but I am even more convinced we should go on saying 'No'.

The Government's desperate mistakes, thanks to Micheal Martin, have discredited still further the deceit over Lisbon, raising further questions in people's minds about the way democracy is abused here. Badly is one word for it. Ineptly is another. Deviously is a third.

But the Irish public is now more aware than ever of the growing movement against the EU Empire of Oligarchs.

Suspicion has been heightened about all future statements on the Lisbon Treaty and on Europe. So much for protocol. Game, set and match to Declan Ganley.