Bruce Arnold

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

Frustration growing as debate on Europe stifled

Public recognition that a national debate is needed on Ireland's future in Europe is growing despite attempts to throttle or pre-empt it. Last Friday, in the Dail, at a meeting of former Oireachtas members attending a seminar on Ireland and Europe, there were references to the growing dissatisfaction felt about bad leadership or no leadership or secretive leadership. A tide of public reaction is building.

Notable contributors included Alan Dukes, who heads what was once Anglo Irish Bank, and Geraldine Kennedy, former editor of the 'Irish Times'. Alan Dukes made a statement about us being 'led by the nose', notably by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, referring to the former as "a very substantial lady who knows what she is doing".

Apart from the word "substantial", this is complete nonsense. Ms Merkel has led Europe throughout the euro crisis and has repeatedly failed to find a workable solution. She clearly does not know what she is doing for Europe, only Germany. If she does, it is not enough to get us out of the mess. As Wolfgang Munchau said last Monday in the 'Financial Times': "Now that she has got everything she wanted, the system continues to unravel."

Lucinda Creighton, Minister of State for European Affairs, claimed: "We need the big member states to show leadership." That is more nonsense. They are telling us what to do, in their own interest. That is not European leadership.

More interesting was Ms Kennedy's line that there was a political and moral imperative for the Government to put before the people the question of whether we should support the new European fiscal treaty. She saw the referendum prevarication by the Government as immoral and lacking fundamental democracy involving "faith in the good sense of the electorate to recognise our long-term economic interest with Europe and with the euro", and remain part of Europe as 10 other states are doing. By the same token, she means the democratic right to make other choices.

Ms Kennedy was 'Irish Times' editor during the two referendums on the Lisbon Treaty, steering the paper's readers towards a 'Yes' vote both in 2008 and 2009. She lost on the first and only won on the second after a campaign based on dubious persuasions and even more dubious threats that instilled a degree of national fear that led to the biased outcome. The 'Irish Times' contributed to that one-sided approach as did RTE.

I suspect Ms Kennedy is revising views once held, despite faith in the electorate's 'good sense', favouring the euro. What is not in doubt is her belief that there should be debate. She added a very strong statement about the massive effect on the Irish psyche of our loss of sovereignty together with rapidly growing debt. This weighs in favour of an open debate.

One government member agrees. Brian Hayes, in an article in the Irish Independent, took David McWilliams and myself to task for our views on the euro, characterising them as 'car-crash economics'. He misrepresented our positions. He seriously misrepresented the eurozone when he said it was our most important trading area. It is not. We do the greater part of our trade outside it. But he made important points, raising questions about the banks, unfair debt, our competitiveness and possible future relationship with the sterling area.

The mantra: how good Europe has been for us and how good it can be, overshadowed his article.

I was encouraged to read the next day in Stephen Collins's column in the 'Irish Times', approving references to Brian Hayes. Mr Collins commented on "the shallow level of so much of the debate on the EU-IMF bailout and our membership of the eurozone".

But instead of helping that debate forward, he hindered it mightily by concealing the names of the two journalists Mr Hayes had quite specifically, and by name, taken to task. He substituted for Mr McWilliams and myself the description of us as "a coterie of prominent media figures who have argued consistently that the solution to Ireland's problems is to leave the euro and establish our own currency". His use of the word 'coterie' was pejorative. The OED definition of a coterie is "a select association of people with exclusive interests". This is hardly an appropriate description of two working journalists who rarely see each other or discuss what they write.

By not naming us, he made debate more difficult. At the same time he criticised members of the Government for not coming out "with a clear and consistent message on the core problems facing the country". So where does he stand? (My letter to the 'Irish Times', pointing out all this confusion and reinforced by one sent to the paper's editor, did not appear.)

IN conclusion, I will turn to another dismal area of misrepresentation concerning Sean Lemass. Ronan Fanning suggests (Irish Independent, January 19) that my arguments about Sean Lemass are unsupported by evidence. He must know, as a historian, that evidence of negatives is very hard to find or manufacture.

It is much easier to say, as he does, that "Lemass ... was an original thinker" and to interpolate from this his "support for the membership of the European Union, as it would become". (My italics.) It did not become anything for us until after Mr Lemass's death. And the EU has changed radically since then. What it has now become would horrify Mr Lemass. As to Europe becoming "a central tenet" of party policy, this was Jack Lynch's doing between the commencement of his leadership in 1966 and our EEC entry in 1973. I forgive Professor Fanning his snide reference to my hero worship of Mr Lynch and his misrepresentation of the book's title. If he ever read it, he would know that 'Jack Lynch: Hero in Crisis' referred to Mr Lynch's proper demolition of Charles Haughey for his treachery over Northern Ireland. This was the crisis in which he played the title role.

Brendan Halligan's essay on Mr Lemass ('Irish Times', January 18) is important for raising the unattractive status of Ireland as a potential member of the EEC in 1961. But he omits reference to OECD misgivings, at the time, over educational shortcomings, including the lamentable neglect of the education of children in the so-called 'care' of the Irish industrial school system. We were seen in the early 1960s as a benighted country, dominated by the church, making us an unattractive EEC candidate with poor levels of democracy. Mr Lemass knew about that and did nothing; his tour of capitals was a weak response to our exclusion.

However, we were not isolated. Relations with Britain were energetically sustained by Mr Lemass. Always the pragmatist, he saw the continuing and still relevant reality of the UK as a market for Irish goods. Mr Halligan completely ignores this aspect of Mr Lemass. He should read Bryce Evans's new biography of Mr Lemass. The book washes all the other ones into the sea.