25 May 2012 Edition
Too close to call
In one week alone you had Enda Kenny insulting unemployed workers in Athlone, Michael Noonan belittling the suffering of the Greek people, and Richard Bruton giving the game away in revealing the Government’s plan to run the referendum again if they didn’t get a ‘Yes’ vote
EU AUSTERITY TREATY CAMPAIGN GOES DOWN TO THE WIRE
I LIKE European Union referendum campaigns. It’s not because I’m a bit of an EU geek, though clearly I am. It’s because these campaigns provide us, the public, with a real opportunity to scrutinise the EU and its impact on our lives.
Throughout this campaign I have met journalists from across the EU who remark on the high level of public engagement and awareness among ordinary voters about the issues at stake in the referendum.
In bars and taxis, people are talking about structural deficits, economic partnerships, austerity and the growth agenda.
This is, in and of itself, a good thing. It is democracy at work: the people listening, learning, debating and finally deciding.
At the start, both sides are eager to display their technical knowledge and competence of the issues. The debates are more turgid and jargon filled.
Then, once the technical test is complete, we all get down to the real arguments about how the treaty will impact on real people’s lives.
At the heart of this campaign have been two competing claims.
Those of us on the ‘NO’ side have argued that supporting this treaty will mean more austerity in the future. Hitting the treaty’s 0.5% structural deficit target will require an additional €6billion in tax hikes and spending cuts post-2015.
For their part, the ‘Yes’ side are keen to draw people away from the Austerity Treaty and focus instead on the issue of accessing ESM emergency funding in 2014. They claim that no emergency funding would lead to even greater austerity, as the state would have to balance its books in a single year.
Alongside this key fault line has been the issue of economic sovereignty. The ‘NO’ side highlights the increased powers for the European Commission and European Court of Justice if the treaty is passed. Interestingly, the ‘Yes’ side seemed content to ignore rather than refute these claims.
Three weeks into the campaign and the media, if not the public, seemed to be developing a bit of referendum fatigue. Forlorn faces greeted spokespersons on the plinth in Leinster House as both sides traded claim and counter claim for the 21st day in a row.
Fortunately, at least for the press corps, a few good gaffes do wonders for their spirits and, along with the inevitable focus on personalities, seems to get the hacks through the day.
While no group ever runs a perfect campaign, the ‘Yes’ side does seem to have made the most mistakes.
In one week alone you had Enda Kenny insulting unemployed workers in Athlone, Michael Noonan belittling the suffering of the Greek people, and Richard Bruton giving the game away in revealing the Government’s plan to run the referendum again if they didn’t get a ‘Yes’ vote.
On the ‘NO’ side, Sinn Féin’s unwise quoting of pro-treaty economists provided a little light distraction to an otherwise strong start to the campaign. Unfortunately, Joe Higgins’s poor performance on the TV3 debate and Richard Boyd Barrett’s €10billion tax gaffe were more damaging to the ‘NO’ campaign.
And then there was poor old Mícheál Martin, like the eager schoolchild at the back of the class, his hand raised high but ignored by the teacher and his classmates. The Soldiers of Destiny (or as they are known in Clondalkin, ‘The Footsoldiers of Austerity’) desperately tried to insert their leader into the campaign, but to little avail.
Declan Ganley’s late appearance clearly unnerved Fine Gael, though not as much as their Mayor of Longford James Keogh, who called on his fellow Blueshirts to reject the treaty as it was bad for business. His call was echoed by Labour councillors in Dublin and Galway.
For me the enduring image of the campaign so far has been the unwillingness of Enda Kenny to debate Gerry Adams head to head.
Everyone knows that Enda can’t hack it without a script. But if he doesn’t have the bottle to debate Gerry on TV3, imagine what he’s like in the European Council negotiations with Angela Merkel. Hardly surprising then that the treaty is such a bad deal for Ireland.
The fate of the referendum now hangs with the undecideds. As I write this with a week to go, it’s all to play for.