The Irish seek a way back into Europe

DUBLIN — Enda Kenny, the leader of Fine Gael, Ireland’s main opposition party, turned up at St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin at lunchtime recently to promote one of his party’s candidates in the June 5 European elections.

Such is the indifference to the European election campaign among Irish voters that not a single passerby stopped to listen while Kenny and his candidate, Gay Mitchell, addressed four reporters huddled beneath a plane tree.

His voice almost inaudible against the roar of traffic passing between us and the Shelbourne Hotel, Kenny warned, “We really need to pull our socks up and realize Europe is good for us.”

Kenny was referring not to the European elections but to Ireland’s plan for a second referendum in the autumn on the Lisbon Treaty, a document designed to improve the workings of the European Union. It is the subtext of the European election campaign in Ireland.

Eleven months ago the Irish electorate defied the political establishment and rejected the treaty, meaning that it could not come into force, as it requires ratification by all 27 member states. Voters cited numerous objections, such as the loss of an automatic Irish representative on the European Commission and (erroneously) that the treaty would legalize abortion. A second referendum, likely to be held in October, might produce a different result.

The collapse of the Irish economy has brought about a shift in public opinion, with polls now showing a majority in favor of a "yes" vote. Once popular in Europe, the Irish now find themselves something of a pariah in Brussels. European Commission president Hans-Gert Pottering warned in May that a second "no" vote would damage Europe and isolate Ireland.

Though on the defensive, eurosceptics in Ireland will fight to defeat the treaty again, and are using the EU election campaign to make their case. The euroskeptics are led by Libertas, a right-leaning organization formed in Ireland last year by wealthy entrepreneur Declan Ganley. 

Libertas helped turn the tide against Lisbon and has since grown into a European-wide party running 300 candidates in 24 EU states on a platform of greater openness and democracy. It also wants to keep Turkey out of the EU.

Opinion polls show Libertas with just 2 percent support in Ireland, but with his personal appeal to conservative Catholics, Ganley could win a seat in the European parliament in North-West, one of the four Irish constituencies which will return three members each to the European Parliament. Ganley is confident enough to promise to quit as leader of Libertas if he fails.

However, in a sign of the new pro-Europe mood in Ireland, the former executive director of Libertas, Naoise Nunn, has defected, declaring that both sides were guilty of “scare-mongering and misinformation” during the first referendum. Nunn said voters should now support Lisbon as circumstances have changed “internationally, economically, financially and domestically.”

Launching the Libertas campaign in Dublin alongside his other candidates, Caroline Simons (Dublin) and Raymond O’Malley (East), Ganley sought to exploit public anger at the way the “political cartel” has responded to the economic crisis. A vote for the main party in government, Fianna Fail, would, he said, be an endorsement of the unpopular prime minister, Brian Cowen. A vote for the opposition parties, on the other hand, would be wasteful, as they “can never hold more than two, three or four seats in the European Parliament.”

With local government elections and two by-elections also being held on June 5, Irish voters are expected to use the opportunity to punish Fianna Fail at every level, mostly by voting for the main opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour.

Enda Kenny was not overly concerned about the lack of public enthusiasm at his appearance at St. Stephen’s Green this week. Fine Gael is expected to win both by-elections, which are taking place because of the deaths of Fianna Fail’s Seamus Brennan in Dublin South and Independent Tony Gregory in Dublin Central.

Hot favorite for Dublin South is George Lee, until last week economics editor of RTE, Ireland’s national broadcast station, who resigned to join Fine Gael. Respected for his prescient warnings of the economic collapse, people crowd around to shake his hand wherever he goes in the South Dublin suburbs.

Otherwise there’s not much to excite voters in these elections.

There is no point at all in voting on June 5 unless “you are mad as hell with the government,” wrote columnist and broadcaster Vincent Browne, in Monday’s Irish Times. “The elections are about nothing at all; no issues, no plans, not even a promise, aside from the ludicrous promise of a few Euro candidates to provide jobs.”

The real political fight will be in the autumn. Gay Mitchell told us at St. Stephen’s Green that any delay in picking a date could have serious consequences. With a general election expected soon in the United Kingdom, a new Conservative government in London could rescind the U.K.’s ratification of the treaty, giving rise to a two-tier Europe. “This is not in Ireland’s interests,” he said, “as we could then be left behind.”

Read more about the European elections:

Reasons to care about the European Parliament elections

The European Parliament elections as beauty pageant