IT WAS a rare moment of light heartedness in an otherwise dull referendum campaign: The Labour leader had just begun his speech at the launch of his party’s call for a yes vote when a poster above became unhinged and crashed to the ground beside him.
The inevitable “I hope that’s not a bad omen” comment was uttered from the back of the room, to which the Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, quickly replied: “That is exactly why we need a new treaty — we need stability!”
In politics, selling a message is everything. Unexpected events will always happen. But how they are shaped to suit a particular political agenda can often be the difference between success and failure.
Like Labour’s falling poster, the Government’s campaign to get the referendum passed on a new EU budget rule book fell from its perch when the French people decided last weekend to change their president from one who dictated the contents of the treaty to one who wants it changed.
Earlier this week it appeared that the Government had successfully seized upon the victory of François Hollande by claiming it fully supported his calls for growth measures to be added to the fiscal compact which would make it an even more attractive proposition for Irish voters.
But it now appears the Government was simply the heckler in the back of the room while the no side has become the Ruairi Quinn hitting back with a stronger, more resonant message.
The political mood music that is now beginning to ring is that Irish people should reject the treaty because the French president-elect and soon to be second most powerful euro-zone leader doesn’t like what it will do for workers and struggling people across Europe.
And that, no matter what way we vote at the end of this month, he is going to go ahead and change it anyway. That, in the words of Fianna Fáil’s Eamon Ó Cuiv before his vow of silence on the issue, would be like the Treaty of Limerick which was broken “ere the ink wherewith ‘twas writ could dry.”
The yes side has allowed opponents to make better use of the Hollande victory for their agenda.
It’s hard to see how the Government would have allowed this to happen given the events in France in recent days were flagged as far back as early February.
The date of the referendum was announced in the Dáil on Mar 27 a week after Mr Hollande — in the height of the French campaign — stated: “If tomorrow I’m president, I’ll say there are parts of this treaty we can accept, but we won’t accept sanctions that are against countries’ interests and, second, we’ll add growth, activity, big industrial projects, Eurobonds to pull the economy ahead.”
When the Cabinet discussed the best date to hold the referendum at its Mar 6 meeting, the view was expressed that it would be better to leave it until after the summer.
One minister was quoted as saying privately that holding the referendum after the summer “would allow us to wait and see the outcome of the French presidential election and the change, if any, in its approach to the fiscal treaty”.
On Apr 24 after the first round of the election showed Mr Hollande was likely to be the ultimate victor, the coalition’s message was still in denial about how the debate would develop.
Asked on the Pat Kenny show that morning whether Mr Hollande’s actions could impact on a yes vote, the director of the Fine Gael campaign, Simon Coveney, said: “I would be wary enough about the election promises being made in the heat of an election in relation to this treaty.”
The realisation soon began to dawn on the coalition that it would have to sing to the tune of Mr Hollande on the need for economic growth if the treaty was to pass. But even then, the Taoiseach was quick to dismiss it as election rhetoric, telling the Dáil on May 1: “I support leaders who join in placing the focus on the need to have investment and growth included in the agenda.
“But it is not for me to interfere with the statements made by Mr Hollande, President Sarkozy or anyone else who is conducting his or her own electoral process.”
When the Government did embrace Mr Hollande’s growth agenda it did so too late, leaving the impression that it was simply jumping on a growth bandwagon.
Sinn Féin, meanwhile was arguing that the incoming French President “has expressed significant concerns about the treaty and its implications, its anti-jobs and growth agenda”, while Clare Daly of the Socialist Party echoed many others when she said “It will be academic that we will be voting on a treaty that will be dramatically altered anyway.”
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) which had not advocated a yes or no vote, yesterday issued a statement urging the Government to stand “four square behind” Mr Hollande ” to ensure there is a new growth strategy for Europe” — suggesting the thousands of workers it represents do not believe it is already doing so.
It said if the Government cannot delay the referendum it should at least delay ratification of the treaty — if passed — until after Mr Hollande’s efforts have played out.
Events in France and the yes side’s response to them have allowed the no side to gain momentum at an important time in the campaign.
This is something that will have to be considered when Mr Hollande meets German Chancellor, Angela Merkel next week.
Both leaders know that if shaping the message is one of the most important aspects of politics, than an ability to compromise is something that comes not too far behind it.
For Hollande, the stakes are high. He has to achieve some concessions or else his mandate will be weakened very early in his presidency.
But Merkel is a political actor and knows the message has to at least be shaped in a way that French people feel they are getting some return on the promise for more growth policies if the Franco-German relationship — without which she is isolated in Europe — is to survive.
And for the Irish Government, having claimed to favour growth measures, voters will have to see some signs of these before casting their ballot. Because a no vote here is something that not even Mr Hollande could contemplate.
It would trigger a process of opposition to the treaty across Europe which could results in efforts to stabilise the currency — like Labour’s election poster — falling to a thud.
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