Bruce Arnold

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

I'm angry at two leaders who should know better

I have had pretty much a lifelong respect for two politicians who came to prominence in the Dail when I started writing a political column for the Irish Independent in 1973.

They are John Bruton, who was first elected to the Dail in that year and became a junior minister under Liam Cosgrave, and Garret FitzGerald, who was an outstanding Minister for Foreign Affairs in the same administration. They both subsequently served as Taoiseach.

I have admired their political integrity and courage, and their achievements have been considerable.

I was therefore dismayed to read both of them, last Saturday, writing about the Lisbon Treaty in terms that begged many questions and seemed to blame people and exonerate documents.

This needs a response.

John Bruton is the European Ambassador to the US. It is unusual for an international diplomat to speak in a domestic election campaign of the kind that surrounds the Lisbon Treaty, but he did say, at the outset, that his views were being given in a "personal capacity".

In the unlikely event of him having held a personal view that was not in favour of a 'Yes' vote, it is difficult to see how he could have expressed this, personally or otherwise, but then that is the way this debate is going.

He wrote about democracy, mentioning it about five times. This was refreshing, since Garret FitzGerald mentioned it not at all.

I read Mr Bruton keenly because of this.

I was struck particularly by the first occasion, where Mr Bruton talks of the Lisbon Treaty making the European Union "more democratic by opening up the Council of Ministers to the public and giving the Dail and Seanad, together with other national parliaments, a chance to block EU laws before they even go to the European Parliament and Council of Ministers".

What is this phrase "more democratic"? If the European Union moved in the opposite direction, towards a "less democratic" regime, democracy would vanish altogether.

The actions he actually writes about are trivial.

Opening the Council of Ministers to the public is long overdue, but will have little impact on the drafting of legislation since the detail is always worked out before their meetings and consideration by the people -- as opposed to the PR gesture of them being represented there -- would not follow.

As to the Dail or Seanad having any kind of worthwhile debate on European issues, what precedence is there for that?

It was insulting of John Bruton even to mention democracy in this context. And any worthwhile input into the drafting of EU legislation from the Oireachtas would be negligible.

When Mr Bruton claimed the European Union as "the world's only multinational democracy" he was stretching a point that is really central to this whole debate.

There is a whiff of democracy about the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty but only a whiff. In essence the EU is not democratic and that is what some of those who oppose the treaty -- and I include myself -- feel most strongly about.

John Bruton speaks from a position of great knowledge, since he is in Washington as ambassador on behalf of the 500 million EU citizens-to-be. And he speaks to the people of the greatest federal democracy on earth: so he must know. And what does he say?

Among other things he says: "The other member states might look at other options to go forward on their own." There can be no such move, and everyone knows it. If we vote 'No' we will continue to be part of the answer to what we do next and we will remain part of the answer.

It is in this context that I find Garret FitzGerald's views on the Lisbon Treaty, both last Saturday and earlier, deeply disturbing.

He talks about Ireland becoming a "pariah". The word, of Indian origin and related to the caste system, means social outcast. Again, this is quite contrary to the EU laws and to custom and practice throughout the Union.

He also goes on to define those who might be responsible for our mythical status in the event of this happening, meaning the people voting 'No'. He uses the word "mislead" about what they say. He says they have been "shown to be wrong in every instance"; I think this is opinion, not fact, and is hugely exaggerated.

He says that those wanting a 'No' vote are acting "perversely" and "frivolously". He describes their "total ignorance of, and lack of interest in, this European structure". He says they are "prejudiced". He mocks the idea that "we" should "indulge their hang-ups and damn the consequences".

He uses the terms "mendacious propaganda", "spurious claims" and refers to "skilful misreadings". All of this is unnecessarily insulting and, personally, I find it offensive.

Dr FitzGerald never once mentions democracy, or addresses it as one of the serious problems at issue in what the constitutional referendum is dealing with. He says that those seeking a 'No' vote are trying "to wreck the entire European reform project" and yet that reform project has ignored, with some small changes, the basic and essential issue of democracy, which should be at the heart of Europe and instead is at the fringes.

He makes palpably clear his disdain for the government ministers campaigning for a 'Yes' vote and not knowing the answers to basic questions about the Lisbon Treaty. Yet what he thinks is important is to get it through, not to examine and acknowledge its serious shortcomings.

He will have been annoyed yesterday that Brian Cowen should have turned on Fine Gael and Labour to do more and to do it better.

Fine Gael and Labour have already failed the electorate by their own unquestioning espousal of the treaty without seeing that, as the opposition, they have a duty to voters which is to ensure the government and the public service honour their duties and obligations in achieving a fair and balanced assessment of what the changes to our Constitution will actually mean.

Their inept campaigns, just as much as the performances of ministers, have become part of the problem. And those who intend to vote 'No' are getting none of the answers.