00:00 Saturday 27 June 2009  Written by Editor

Protocol success nota guarantee of yes to Lisbon Treaty vote

IT was a bit disingenuous of Irish Socialist Party leader and recently-elected MEP Joe Higgins to call the guarantees concerning the Lisbon Treaty achieved by the Irish government in Brussels last Friday 'red herrings' when it was people like himself, Libertas, Sinn Féin and a motley assortment of anti-European Union zealots that put many of them there in the first place during last year's referendum campaign. By doing this, they caused so much confusion by sowing seeds of doubt in people's minds that - apart from those who used the referendum as a protest vote against the government's handling of the economy - many who hadn't fully made up their minds about the value or otherwise of the Lisbon Treaty chose to vote no at the last minute, rather than endorse something that they did not fully understand.

This was also, it must be said, an indictment of the pro-Lisbon Treaty side as they failed to explain it clearly - with a number of prominent establishment figures admitting that they had not even read it! - and, therefore, were unable to allay the genuine fears of ordinary people confused by much of the misinformation that had been put out by those on the no side.

Apart from Joe Higgins, who seems intent on biting the hand that now feeds him - although he is entitled to his anti-EU views, notwithstanding that the majority do not agree with them - the other prominent campaigners against the Lisbon Treaty got their comeuppance at this month's European Parliament elections. The biggest casualty was the high-profile Libertas founder Declan Ganley, who failed to get elected in the North West constituency, while the party's other two candidates in Ireland, Caroline Simons and Raymond O'Malley, were rejected even more decisively in their respective constituencies.

Ganley had hoped for Libertas to become a pan-European political force, but suffered a huge reversal abroad, when two of three sitting MEPs he had persuaded to stand for the party failed to get re-elected. To his credit, Ganley walked away from politics after his rejection by the voters, opining that he at least recognised that no means no.

Meanwhile, in Dublin, Sinn Féin vice-president Mary Lou McDonald, who was her party's most prominent anti-Lisbon campaigner, also lost her seat in the European Parliament. In Munster - while she did some very good work campaigning on rights for vulnerable people - Kathy Sinnott's anti-Lisbon stance was probably the factor that tipped the balance against her, as she narrowly failed to get re-elected.

Even though the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty should not have happened in the first place and set the tone at the start of what was to be a disastrous first year as Taoiseach for Brian Cowen, to his credit - and also that of Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin - a root and branch review of why people rejected the Lisbon Treaty here last summer was carried out and people's concerns about this most important issue were elicited and addressed by the government. Would that they could be that good with the other pressing areas of concern that they need to deal with!

At the end of November, the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Ireland's Future in the European Union reported its findings in the wake of the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. The comprehensive report explored the challenges facing Ireland in Europe, especially in the context of meeting the concerns expressed by the Irish people last June, concluding that Ireland's place is at the heart of the European Union.

The Irish people's concerns about the Lisbon Treaty were brought to the EU summit in December and guarantees sought in the areas such as the right to life, family and education matters, our corporate tax regime, the perceived threat of conscription to an EU army, Ireland's neutrality and the retention of an EU Commissioner for each of the 27 countries. Then EU president Nicolas Sarkozy promised a protocol to allay all such fears Irish citizens had about the Lisbon Treaty and, even though the presidency has been held for the first six months of this year by the mercurial Czechs, Brian Cowen held his ground in insisting that the promise of a protocol be honoured.

A declaration by all member states, or by some, may be made in conjunction with a treaty, but does not have legal force as it just expresses a political intention, whereas protocols attached to the various treaties have exactly the same legal status as the treaty itself. To achieve the enshrinement of the guarantees requested by Ireland in a protocol involved some brinksmanship by the Irish government, as there was opposition to it, especially from British prime minister Gordon Brown, who was afraid he would have to go before his own parliament to have the Lisbon Treaty ratified again.

However, Brian Cowen held his nerve to gain what was probably his biggest and most important political achievement since becoming Taoiseach by getting the agreement of the other 26 EU leaders to the protocol that should allay all the fears expressed here about the Treaty of Lisbon. This protocol will be attached to the next EU treaty, subject to the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon in the second referendum on it next October in Ireland.

The protocol will not contain the change in the treaty reversing the proposal to have only fifteen EU commissioners for the 27 member states. Our expressed desire to continue to have one for each member state will take the form of a political decision, which has been agreed, subject to ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by all the member states.

With the global economic downturn having got much worse since the first Lisbon Treaty referendum here just over twelve months ago, the reality has dawned on many people who voted no then that we need the European Union more than ever, as our economic fortunes will not even begin to recover until the rising tide of the bigger players' recovery starts to lift our boats. Also, the EU is forcing our government to adhere to strict borrowing guidelines of an agreed percentage of our GDP as we try to regain control of our finances, thus heading off any temptation that a government might have to borrow and bedamned in order to court political popularity.

There are many other areas where the European Union is of benefit to Ireland, especially as a big player in international negotiations with the world's superpowers such as the United States, China and Russia. EU influence is vital if there is to be any meaningful global response to address the calamity of global warming brought about by climate change and there are areas such as human rights where it can also exert influence on its member states' behalf.

Ireland has been a net beneficiary of the European Union since we joined almost forty years ago and even though there were areas where we sold some of the family silver - such as access to our fishing waters - we can thank EU structural funds, for example, for having helped kick start the Celtic Tiger economic boom. That we blew it through greed is solely our own fault.

It is time now for the Irish electorate to make a mature and properly-informed decision on the Lisbon Treaty and not to be sidetracked by many of the spurious alarm bells that will inevitably be sounded by the naysayers during the course of the upcoming referendum campaign. The treaty issue is also far too serious a matter to be merely used as a protest vote against the government - that has already been done in the local and European elections and, no doubt, will carry through to the next general election, whenever it is called, so people will get the ultimate chance then to pass judgement on its performance.

However, now that everything is properly clarified and that there seems to be no lingering ambiguity about the Lisbon Treaty and how it will affect us, if ratified by the people of Ireland at the second time of asking, the government and the opposition parties who support it still cannot take a yes vote for granted and must work even harder now to ensure its safe passage through next October, so that they can get back to the even more urgent task of getting our country's economy back on track.

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