Bruce Arnold

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

'No' vote merely a symptom of the disease within Europe

All politicians have been slow to wake up to post-Lisbon reality, and this is primarily because of their presumptive stupidity before the campaign. The change of heart has been aided by other shocks to the political system, putting wages and a wage deal and the economic slump into the forefront of all their minds.

And it is to be hoped that there will be no more adventurism in collective thinking. They need to think for themselves, their voters, their mandate and their parties; and they need to think very hard indeed.

The same applies to Europe. Rather as the EU did over Kosovo -- which was to stand idly by while human rights were abused and genocide committed, all of which has come back to us in recent days -- the EU is standing idly by again, looking at Ireland for a solution to a problem that is mainly Europe's.

It is truly astonishing how much at sea European leaders are in facing a crisis which is theirs more than ours. They can't, or won't, accept what it is that is wrong in Europe; mistakes that have turned away a favoured country, Ireland, which has not lost its loyalty or interest in membership, but simply disdains what has been done to the body politic of this continent. Mercifully, some realisation is coming through in Ireland itself. Eamon Gilmore has recognised and said that we should not go through with a second referendum.

His thinking on this is not entirely clear, and it may be partly in response to the internal Labour Party view on Lisbon. But it is a step in the right direction as is his, and Enda Kenny's, view that it would be poor judgment on their part to enter some kind of government-inspired pact to sustain the ill-fated cross-party unity that took such punishment in the referendum vote.

That unity was wrong, mainly for the following reason: it meant that the opposition parties were operating not in the interest of those who elected them, but in the interest of a deeply defective European idea that had been poorly conceived and arrogantly presented to this country without any serious judgment of the political nature of the Irish people.

Instead of leading, they became part of the problem. This defective idea is just one of the reasons why Europe is to blame for what happened, and not the Irish electorate, which would be followed in what it did by other European countries were they given the opportunity. The two opposition parties have still a way to go before they make the correct adjustments to changed times and changed thinking among ordinary voters. The situation remains serious for both parties.

Fine Gael faces a greater problem than Labour. The brutal reality for the main opposition party is that its leader, Enda Kenny, has run his course and should accept that fact in the near future, withdrawing from the leadership with the dignity of what he has achieved intact, and with a lengthy career in politics behind him.

He achieved much in the last election. He brought his party together and, with a small element of additional luck, might well have defeated Bertie Ahern -- a welcome outcome had it happened.

But he has faded since then, losing standing in the opinion polls and in his actual presentation of policy -- notably in respect of the Lisbon Treaty, on which he was unsure of himself, as he is on the economy and jobs -- a loss that will not be recovered. The party is not going to change for the better under him.

Enda Kenny is the Father of the Dail, longer in the political tooth than he appears. He became leader after a long and undistinguished period in politics, and made a fair fist of the job, certainly better than his immediate predecessor and with a greater sense of party cohesion. But it is over, and this is further emphasised by the fact that the coming issues -- the economy, jobs, unemployment -- are not issues on which he enjoys much authority.

The need for this key decision is an urgent one, best taken with the Government in disarray and the opposition parties waking up to the new realities facing them.

The greater moral strength of the Labour Party, under its relatively new leader, is based on policy and its articulation. And the strength is evident all the time, when Kenny and Gilmore are on their feet in the Dail. It is a different matter with Richard Bruton, who has already demonstrated, in the sudden and drastic economic crisis we are facing, that he is outstandingly more competent than his leader.

He has been consistently right on key economic and social issues and this is itself the key to where we go now.

Most of what Micheal Martin has said since he condemned, on wildly nationalistic grounds, last weekend's sensible poll on the reasons behind the 'No' vote, has damaged his otherwise balanced performance since the leadership change in Fianna Fail. But he seemed to be going back into earlier bad ways when he suggested the all-party Oireachtas Committee find out things about the vote which we don't really need to know.

We do not need committees. We do not need all-party pacts. We do not want to be governed from Iveagh House. We do not want to be told how to re-run what those in power think was a botched job without understanding why.

Michael Martin, like Brian Cowen, has had his eye firmly fixed, since the result of the referendum, on reversing the Lisbon Treaty decision. Even while the votes were being counted, Brian Cowen was telling the commission president enough to have him declare that ratification elsewhere should continue.

This indicates the wrong private message from Day One while public assurances of respect for voters' wishes were being declared. That was an unreliable position from the start. Martin followed the same line. As in the case of Cowen, this is two-faced. It represents a supine attitude towards Europe, an acceptance of a foolish concept -- that we and our democratic actions are in the wrong -- and it is misguided in its judgment of the views of the Irish people.

The main opposition parties should have none of that from now on.