Yes campaign off to a good start but politicians need to smarten up

THANK God for the website www.irelandforeurope.ie. At last an organisation of people who really want to go out and work for the Lisbon Treaty and they look like they’re going to do it with imagination and a bit of flair.

They’ve hit the ground running and they seem to have the capacity and the leadership ability that was so sorely lacking the last time.

I know there’s been a bit of sneering about the use of celebrities in their campaign, but I have to say I think it’s really refreshing that people like The Edge, Denis Hickie and Robbie Keane are prepared to put their money where their mouths are. There’s nothing in it for them, after all, so the gesture they’re making by lining up publicly on the Yes side has to be a statement of commitment to the wider ideal of Europe and to the importance of Europe in all our lives.

The Ireland for Europe campaign has made one other wise decision, too, because they have picked Caroline Erskine as their spokesperson.

She knows her stuff and she is also an experienced broadcaster, with a good ear as to how the message should be pitched. And she has that indefinable mix of passion and trustworthiness – an absolutely vital combination in a referendum campaign.

Because the Ireland for Europe campaign has got off to a good and early start, it has a real chance now to become “top of mind” for radio and television programme-makers. In the last campaign, whenever a Lisbon story appeared on the news agenda, as often as not the current affairs producers would automatically think, “let’s give Declan Ganley of Libertas a call – he’ll be able to make a knowledgeable comment on that”.

That emphasis on always having something to say, and always being available, made Ganley the de facto leader of the No campaign, despite all the mystery that surrounded his party. The first thing the Yes campaign needs to work on is making sure the same producers say “let’s give Caroline Erskine a ring”.

If they do, I hope she hasn’t been put in the position where she has to farm media opportunities out among a half-dozen egos. The key to a consistent campaigning message is to establish a single voice as having integrity around the message, and then to use that voice again and again.

Erskine has been out of the media spotlight for a while and may not be as well-known to the general public as she used to be.

But whoever heard of Declan Ganley before the last referendum campaign? If I was going to give any technical advice to the Yes campaign at this stage, it would be to take a good look at its own website. It doesn’t yet have enough information of its own about the actual treaty – the annotated version on the site is unnecessarily complicated.

There are several consolidated versions available which, while they mightn’t be the most exciting read in the world, are pretty accessible and give a very clear picture of what we’re being asked to vote for. And campaigning websites should be full of “we” and “us” – not “me” and “I”. There’s too much of that ego-driven stuff, and it gets in the way.

But I’m sure they have all sorts of people willing to help them with the technical stuff. The key to winning, as it is in most things, is self-belief. That was one of the things most lacking in the last campaign and it showed up in the most startling ways.

It truly was astonishing to hear the Taoiseach of the day, and our EU commissioner, both gratuitously announce they hadn’t read the treaty they wanted us to vote for.

Commissioner McCreevy, if you remember, went even further when he told us all we’d be mad to read it – but we should vote for it anyway.

The gaffes of that campaign – especially those ones – actually helped to copperfasten a rather odd belief that those who wanted us to vote Yes couldn’t be bothered to read it, so those who wanted us to vote No must be the real experts (Even though I’m 100% certain that Gerry Adams never read the treaty, he never got caught out over it).

When we first started on the journey to a referendum on Lisbon, I wrote here that you can’t win a referendum on the cheap.

I remember being alarmed, and saying so, because right from the beginning of that last campaign all you could hear was government ministers on the radio and television calling for reasoned debate and promising to put the facts in front of the people (When they subsequently admitted not reading the treaty, that got a bit harder). But it was the usual old rubbish, in other words.

If you want to win a referendum – and there’s a long history that teaches this lesson – you have to get stuck into a committed, energetic and passionate campaign, aimed at getting clear, direct and honest messages to the maximum number of people – and also aimed at demonstrating that you genuinely care and that the change you’re looking for will genuinely make a difference. On big issues in Ireland, more campaigns have been won by fear than by optimism – and the only way to combat fear is with real passion. Of course, if you want to see passion, watch what happens when politicians feel their own backs are to the wall.

Remember Brian Cowen in the last general election, for instance. He took the last week of that campaign by the scruff of the neck and he exhibited strength and commitment that we haven’t seen from him since.

WE need to see the same sort of energy for the European ideal in the months ahead. And it needs to start soon. Just because there is now a good “citizens’ campaign” in place, that doesn’t absolve the politicians. Unlike the last time, when they made every mistake known to man or woman, they have to show that they understand what they’re leading us into in this referendum.

I know it’s always said that a referendum, because it gives citizens a unique opportunity, also imposes unique responsibilities – especially the responsibility to be informed.

But leaders can never absolve themselves from the responsibility to lead.

And of course, if the Taoiseach loses Lisbon, there is only one place for him to go. As Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell said (or nearly said): “To lose one referendum may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.”

Actually, it would be beyond carelessness. But let’s hope it doesn’t happen. There are a couple of articles to be written about the importance of Europe and why it is the right thing to do to vote Yes. But that’s for another day. Right now, those of us who support Lisbon are breathing a sigh of relief that the campaign has got off on the right foot.

All the signs are that the Yes campaign is ready and willing to take on the issues and provide the civic leadership we need. If our political leadership gets its act together half as well, Ireland can’t lose.

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