I congratulate Deputy Coveney on a fine, passionate speech.
One is tempted to echo the answer given by a local to a visitor requesting directions — "I wouldn't be starting from here" — or perhaps one should take more encouragement from the hoarding at the entrance to the Dublin Port tunnel bearing the words, "There isn't just a choice of A or B. There is probably a C." The question is to find a resolution to the potentially very difficult situation in which both Ireland and the EU find themselves following the result of the referendum last Friday, which everyone has to respect and proceed from.
Apart from a certain Europe wide disconnect between the Union and its peoples, with which nearly all of our partners are familiar, there is perhaps an element more particular to Ireland, one with which the Acting Chairman, Deputy Johnny Brady, as Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, will be familiar. At a livestock market, almost invariably the response, even to a relatively good initial bid, is "No". More is needed, even if a second offer, often little different from the first, if at all, is then reluctantly accepted. Walking away altogether seldom happens.
It is with good reason that all our other European partners chose to seek parliamentary ratification of the Lisbon treaty and the ruling party in France won a mandate to do that last year. Referendums on something as general yet as complex as this treaty are vulnerable to all sorts of cross-currents, some quite unconnected with it. While many people passionately cherish the right to vote directly on such treaties now and in the future, I encountered many others who implicitly and sometimes explicitly resented a matter this complex being referred to them.
While I am certain the decision to hold a referendum was based on both clear legal advice and sound political considerations, it could be argued that since 1987 we have taken an expansive interpretation of the Crotty judgment. While no longer relevant in relation the referendum just past, it is an issue that needs to be looked at carefully if we are not continually to be hampered in the future vis-à-vis all other member states. While our strict constitutional requirements must be respected, we do not necessarily have to go well beyond them.
There will be many analyses of both the campaign and the outcome and our EU partners as well as ourselves are uncertain as to how to interpret them. The "No" camp in its various manifestations had more dramatic stories to sell and threats to embroider against a backdrop of a deteriorating economic situation. There were also genuine concerns, as the Taoiseach has outlined, about ongoing negotiations and discussions at EU and global level, where total reassurance was difficult to provide. The only way to win support, apart from through the media, was door-to-door canvassing which could have been more effective if there had been more of it. I was not greatly impressed with "Yes" posters obviously designed more to promote the local or national politician than the treaty.
The credentials of most on the "No" side are well known and of long standing. Libertas was the new factor and its origins, inspiration and funding have been a matter of much speculation. A Danish colleague at the ASEM Finance Ministers' meeting in Korea told me over the weekend that there is also a right-wing organisation called Libertas in Denmark. It would be interesting to know if there is any connection. While one should not exaggerate the significance of this factor, it was notable that every right-wing British owned newspaper group in Ireland, not a few British-based old left trade unions and our own Tory commentators, including a couple of Senators from the unreformed university constituency, all lined up against the treaty. The irony is that, despite the endemic euroscepticism which we love to scorn, Britain is in the process of completing its ratification of the Lisbon treaty, while we have put ourselves, temporarily at least, further out on a limb. Our European engagement has hitherto served to enhance our independence from British and now Anglo-American influences, to which we could otherwise be overwhelmingly subject.
I praise, however, the National Forum on Europe, RTE, The Irish Times and the The Irish Catholic, in particular, as well as the Alliance for Europe and many social partnership organisations for their exceptional contributions to the debate. It was notable that not a single retired diplomat, senior public servant or Minister who ever attended a Council meeting on behalf of this country advocated a “No” vote. Perhaps all of us in that category have a more idealised view of Ireland’s commitment to be at the heart of Europe than the people of this country understand or are at present fully willing to support. That is a matter on which we need to reflect.
I regret some natural pro-European organisations chose to make their support conditional, for a while at least. It would be an extraordinary, though at present highly improbable scenario, if Ireland were to need to add to its negative to the Lisbon treaty another unilateral negative to a concluded Doha round negotiation supported by the rest of the world. We need to repair a situation where we have already used up most of our credit in case we should need it to protect interests much more immediate and palpable than the issues at stake in the Lisbon treaty.
Certain contributions from the rest of Europe — one statement by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was endlessly quoted — were extremely unhelpful in suggesting that elites were manipulating the public and leading the people without their being aware of it to certain desired goals, deliberately making the treaty obscure and incomprehensible to that end. That unappealing vanity, which dates back to Jean Monnet unfortunately, is very destructive of public trust. Ironically, the vision that many on both sides of the argument have of Europe and Ireland's place in it does not differ all that much, only our very different assessments of the significance of the changes in the Lisbon treaty.
While there is a lot of dismay at the result, there is still a fund of goodwill and understanding for Ireland among our partners, on the basis that there will be a shared search for asolution.
The reality that everyone needs to understand, borne out by the history of the EU over 50 years, is that, notwithstanding the unanimity requirement, it is never possible for one member state, small or large, to block for any prolonged period the onward evolution of the European Union because the price of attempting to do so would be too high. It is stated with regard to future treaties in Article 48 that "if four fifths of the member states have ratified it and one or more member states have encountered difficulties in proceeding with ratification, the matter shall be referred to the European Council". In other words, the spirit is that serious efforts will be made to resolve any impasse that arises, without a large majority dictating to a small minority or vice versa.
The Constitution clearly entrusts the conduct of Irish foreign policy to the Government, subject to the Dáil. The Government, with respect, would have a much better appreciation than individuals or organisations outside the Dáil of the diplomatic and other realities of negotiations in a European Union of 27 — MEP Mary-Lou McDonald's shopping list of demands would be what Dean Swift would have called "a modest proposal". Treaty opponents pretend to believe they have strengthened the Government's negotiating hand, whereas in reality the Government's main challenge is to avert the real potential for disaster for this country's interests and for Europe's from last Friday's result. The Taoiseach and his Cabinet Ministers will need space to work out a viable solution, and I have every faith in their ability to find one with the help of our partners.
If there are clarifications or modifications that can be obtained, without reopening the whole negotiation, and that will make the content of the treaty more acceptable to the Irish people, whatever about the "No" organisations, that will be good because few openly dare to dispute that full EU membership has been exceptionally good for Ireland. We should not seek, as far as can be avoided, to accentuate Irish exceptionalism in the European Union. Those who contribute most to an organisation are also those who will get the most out of it, and that has been the experience over most of the last 35 years. However, let us be under no illusions. We could quite soon be faced, like the farmer in the box at the auction ring, with deciding whether we are willing to be in and on the market, or let it continue without us by taking ourselves home without a deal and the living standard foregone which that implies. It would be a sorry end to a beautiful dream.