Bruce Arnold

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

O Cuiv has given his party the chance to shape a new future

Eamon O Cuiv, silenced, emerges strengthened from the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis. He is the only visible figure in the party to represent both a challenge to Micheal Martin and an opportunity for Fianna Fail to realise some kind of future destiny or direction on the single issue of importance at the moment to Ireland, the country's relationship to Europe.

In a bland, platitudinous speech, the Fianna Fail party leader had this, and this only, to say about Europe: "This has always been a pro-EU party and we are not going to change that now. We have taken the lead in setting out a detailed series of reform measures which Europe needs to get through the crisis. It reflects the policy we have consistently supported and because it is the right thing to do for Ireland, we will be true to our tradition and we will support this new treaty. We were founded as a republican party and republicanism remains our core belief."

This sidesteps the crisis facing us. Mr Martin totally ignores recent developments, committing himself to one vote -- when there are two -- and making complete nonsense of the apology that was the heart of the ard fheis address. That apology, one would imagine, embraced his own nonsensical approach to EU issues when he was minister for foreign affairs, serving beside a leader who made an even more catastrophic mess of banking, the Lisbon Treaty and the bailout.

Brian Cowen has not given a comparable apology. He has washed his hands of all responsibility and reclaimed private citizenship as a political placebo. He is not a private citizen. He is a senior constitutional officer of the State, serving on the Council of State ex officio and sharing with other Taoisigh a responsibility for the past. That responsibility cannot be shed.

Meanwhile, RTE is still fumbling around trying to work out what happened in Irish politics prior to Enda Kenny's merciful takeover. And it is failing miserably because it choose to ignore the full explanations already published by print journalists.

This is the tapestry against which the pre-ard fheis O Cuiv crisis was played out, and from which Mr Martin limped away in false triumph, essentially useless as a party leader.

Mr O Cuiv is the only person attempting to tease out, for the party's guidance, the huge dilemma it faces together with the credibility gap that continues to widen over whether the party has any serious claim to be considered an effective opposition, or worthy of electoral support.

Mr O Cuiv may have some clumsy and bizarre methods of stating his own policies, but his instincts are right in defining a correct approach, balancing what Ireland's position should be. If he can judge this correctly, his future potential as a leader outstrips the claims of any other candidate for the job.

The crucial issue concerns the Attorney General finding that a referendum is needed for one of the two treaties facing us. This should have been at the heart of Mr Martin's speech. What he actually said was what Bertie Ahern would have described as 'all waffle'.

What the Government is planning to do is seek political approval for the European Stability Mechanism Treaty (ESM), which we signed up to last month, as well as a referendum vote on the Fiscal Compact Treaty/TSCG, signed on March 2. This second treaty is strictly speaking not an EU treaty which has presumably provoked the need for the referendum.

What is wrong, firstly, is the ordering of these two treaties. Worse still is in the content and detail. Both treaties are lethal documents, agreements we should measure and judge most carefully. But the one we intend to vote on, and to do so in accordance with the legal requirements indicated to the Government by its law officer, is the more lethal of the two. Furthermore, the order in which we act as a state is wrong in constitutional terms.

The ESM Treaty is deeply flawed, being illegal under European law and unconstitutional under the Irish Constitution. The mechanism open to the EU as a result of the ESM Treaty introduces strict conditionality to the granting of financial assistance. There are also protections, such as "not increase the competences conferred on the Union under the treaties", and it enters into force "only when approved by the member states in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements".

The first version of the treaty was then amended and made "more effective". It was tightened up, imposing or fostering "greater fiscal responsibility and solidarity within the economic and monetary union", but subject to the constraints of the Fiscal Compact.

The Government will now seek a Yes vote in a referendum on the Fiscal Compact. If the ESM Treaty is ratified by the Oireachtas before the referendum, the Irish State would commit itself to subscribing some €11bn in different forms of capital to the ESM fund when it is set up, but there would be no certainty about whether any benefit at all would accrue to Ireland as a result.

If the people rejected the Fiscal Compact Treaty having already ratified the ESM Treaty, we would be left with a liability but with no prospect of return. This would be dangerous indeed. What would the world think of us if we ratified the ESM Treaty setting up the permanent eurozone fund before the referendum? On present performance, Lucinda Creighton and Enda Kenny would be thrilled to have the moral bludgeon with which to browbeat referendum voters to approve the Fiscal Compact Treaty on the grounds that voting No would deprive us of possible access to the permanent eurozone fund in the future.

This is only the beginning of the argument. But at the very least, the attitude that is instinctive within Mr O Cuiv's political soul is entirely absent from the simplicity with which Mr Martin views his relationship, firstly, with the former deputy leader of the party, then with the party as a whole, then with voters in the forthcoming referendum and finally with the Government which is still working on the principle that if we show ourselves to be good boys in Europe, something will turn up to our advantage. It will not. Everything lying ahead of us is made up of traps and snares and we need a new voice to deal with this dilemma.