In line with the party-by-party thing that I wrote at the start of the campaign, I might as well finish off my coverage of the Fiscal Compact referendum with the same thing, a few months on.
Well, they won, though the nature of that victory has resulted in less cheering then you might expect. Fine Gael did the leg work for much of the campaign and can take most of the credit for its passing. That is, the Fine Gael party, organisation, TD’s, the likes of Simon Coveney and Lucinda Creighton, who got as much media time as possible and Michael Noonan, the only TD to call to my door during the campaign (just missed him). They had the most posters, the most leaflets, and the biased referendum commission.
And they did it all without much help from the leader of the party. The Taoiseach is noted for disappearing frequently when things get a bit rough – his absence from the general election campaign for large stretches, the Presidential campaign after his preferred candidate wasn’t selected, this whole thing with Vincent Browne – and it does reek of a party political machine that has little faith in its leaders ability o debate the issue. Enda Kenny could put up an acceptable performance against the likes of Gerry Adams if he wanted to, but no one seems to want to let him have the chance. They’re terrified of a “moment” happening. But he’s the Taoiseach. Rather dull addresses to the nation are not sufficient.
They scare mongered, they deflected, they attacked the speaker and they won. You can talk about the morality of that and the consequences of the vote result, but looking at it on a purely detached basis, it was a well-run campaign that got the desired result. They pressed the right buttons and they worked hard to make sure it wasn’t another Oireachtas commissions debacle.
Whose that now?
I kid, but it cannot go unnoticed what little impact Ireland’s second largest party had on the whole affair. Gilmore had his one debate with Gerry Adams, which he performed admirably in, but he and his party didn’t seem to do much else. Pat Rabbitte and Joan Burton seemed unenthusiastic about the campaign when they were forced to speak, and dropped some clangers on occasion.
This was definitely a referendum that the Labour party was in two minds about, internally at least. I imagine plenty of the party faithful may have ticked the “Nil” box when it came down to it. Labour is still struggling to retain its identity as a worker friendly party that hasn’t become a posterboy for austerity, and this referendum just seemed to make the institution uncomfortable. They seemed content to leave most of the heavy lifting to Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. This is not acceptable from a coalition partner, who seem on occasion to be going through their time in government on auto-pilot.
This was an opportunity to get the party fighting for a cause, get the blood up so to speak (and so soon after the Ard Dheis) but that just didn’t happen.
Well, the Soldiers of Destiny are continuing to rebuild, slowly, and have got a victory to their name. Getting attached to that “win” was important for the party during this bleak time, and they can claim to have done quite a bit of work in getting the result. Unlike Labour, Fianna Fail went into this campaign with gusto and verve. Martin seemed far more committed then Gilmore and Kenny to getting it passed, and while he may not have shared a stage with the other two, he’s come out of it looking the best of all the party leaders.
But Fianna Fail should be careful not to look too much into it, as some of their membership seem to be operating under the dangerous delusion that “we won it”. You helped win it, certainly, but plenty of voters would have been turned off the Fiscal Compact by the contagion that Fianna Fail still bring. Like the Dublin South by-election, Fianna Fail might be seeing success to a degree that doesn’t exist. Fianna Fail were the minor partners in a triumvirate that saw this referendum passed, and misinterpreting that success as a signal that they have been forgiven to any degree would be unwise. Wait for the locals. Then we’ll talk.
I said before that I thought Fianna Fail could have taken the lead on the “No” side, but it was smart choice in the end. Doing that and losing would have been extraordinarily embarrassing and damaging. Martin made a good call, and O’Cuiv must be feeling a little uncomfortable now.
Onto the “No” side. For Sinn Fein, this is a failure, but you could easily predict the spin before the final result was even counted. Focus on the amount of “No” voters combined with the number of non-voters. Subtly imply that the result is not a true reflection of Ireland. It’s all they can do.
Because they were outdone by the combined FG/Lab/FF effort this time around. Perhaps Sinn Fein were expecting an easier ride after Nice I and Lisbon I, where just forcing a second referendum was a huge victory. Here, they floundered numerous times, unable to replicate the scare tactics of Lisbon I to a degree of believability and often left stone faced when the issue of alternative funding came up. Sinn Fein gained more publicity and support from this campaign, but they were still a poor leader of the “No” side, too quick to denounce the Compact without a comprehensive and coherent alternative to present. It was Sinn Fein’s job to convince Ireland they had other options. They didn’t succeed.
Adams is not a great debater and saw his role as head of the party routinely overtaken by Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty, the latter consistently showing himself to be the party’s best face for this kind of thing. I maintain my belief that Doherty could lead this party some day, and would be a better man for that job then Adams.
The ULA saw their part in the whole thing largely overshadowed by Sinn Fein. They were just saying the same things, with a smaller reach. They certainly had passion and Paul Murphy MEP was notable, but they failed, as Sinn Fein failed. The ULA tried the scare tactics and deflection too, and like Sinn Fein were unable to come up with coherent alternatives that could convince the electorate. Fractures within this left-wing union are another topic, but I didn’t see much of that during the campaign.
The ULA framed this entire campaign as part of their plans against austerity, which was smart, but they seemed on occasion to give off an air of defeat, as if by tying in everything to the anti-austerity movement beyond the referendum, they were admitting that they knew they couldn’t win. The Mick Wallace affair has brought a spotlight on the ULA that they don’t really deserve, and has distracted from the work they have been trying to do in the aftermath of the “Yes” vote.
Too diverse in their opinions to have had a large scale effect really. Anything that the Dail Independents had to say about the Fiscal Compact has been dwarfed by the amount of column inches Mick Wallace has garnered over the last few days. Cest la Vie.
Ganley’s inclusion in the debate was important to give the “No” side someone better to send on TV then Adams, but Libertas and their leader will presumably disappear again now. Ganley should decide whether he wants to be a politician or not.
Remember them? Well the Green Party was unable to secure a high enough internal majority to even pick a side, so had to stay out of the whole thing, missing out on even the tiniest bit of publicity they would have gotten. Unfortunately, in a choice of “Yes” and “No”, “?” is not an alternative to campaign for. Dire.
So what does all of this mean for the future of the Dail? Some impressions I’ve gotten from the campaign:
-Fianna Fail under Martin are committed to a slow renewal of their fortunes, with the less risk taking the better. If that means finding themselves campaigning aggressively on the same side as Fine Gael, so be it. Martin has his eyes on the long term. I think he’s right.
-Sinn Fein are the main opposition party in the Dail, at least by popular perception. Fianna Fail are too unpopular nationwide to fulfil that role to a credible degree and the stances that all of the party’s took in this referendum leaves no doubt as to who the loudest voice against the government and austerity is. That’s something that Fianna Fail will hope to combat in the future, but they’ll find it tough going. Sinn Fein have a lot of momentum from their General Election performance that has never really stopped, and they are on course to leapfrog Fianna Fail in terms of seats in the next election.
-Labour are heading for a fall. A big one. I think they will get crucified at the local elections and it will take something like that to get the party to seriously re-evaluate what it can get from government.
The next electoral test scheduled are those local/MEP elections, which will be a hugely important contest for gaining an insight, through the ballot box instead of unreliable polls, of how every party is doing and how they can expect to fare come the next general election. On the basis of what I’ve seen in this campaign, I would expect Fine Gael and Labour to fall sharply, Sinn Fein to benefit (and the ULA to a lesser extent) and for Fianna Fail to do everything in their power to only lose a minimum. Not unlike how this referendum campaign was framed, stability – keeping seats, not winning more – is the goal for Fianna Fail.
But it is likely that more referenda will come up before that point. There’s the oft-delayed Children’s Rights vote, though that has a fairly obvious amount of cross-party support as to be irrelevant as a political discussion. There is the proposed abolition of the Seanad, which is a bit more serious. Expect Martin to take the plunge and try to lead the “No” side on that one, with Sinn Fein doing the same, more out of opposition to the government generally then a specific dislike of the idea I suspect.
Then there is the constitutional convention malarkey, which may wind up throwing more referendums at the Irish people, though it remains unclear just what powers that institution will have to do anything. Before the locals, we could yet see issues like Presidential term lengths and the lowering of the voting age to 17 go to a ballot box. I generally can’t see much of an effort being made to oppose those kind of changes.
So, more elections to come, at some point. Can’t wait.