'AFTER 90 years of so-called freedom, should we be proud of it?" A man at the bar in my local before Christmas felt so strongly that he raised his voice slightly; otherwise I would neither have heard his rhetorical question nor his answer: "No way!"
I disagree with his answer but his is a question that we all need to ask ourselves as we face into 2012 and it is a measure of our present plight that such questions are commonplace in Irish pubs this Christmas. Ireland's relationship with Europe lies at the heart of that question, because our decision to enter Europe was the most important decision we took in our 90 years of freedom.
Ireland will hold the Presidency of the EU in the first half of 2013. Previous Irish presidencies have proved remarkably successful and the best way to ensure that we enjoy a comparable success in 2013 is to use 2012 to clarify, once and for all, what we want from Europe and what we can offer in return.
This year, 2012, happens to be the 40th anniversary -- January 22 to be precise -- of the signing in Brussels of the treaty of accession to the EEC by Ireland, the UK and Denmark. On May 10. over a million people (a massive 83 per cent) voted in favour of joining the EEC in the Irish referendum; only some 200,000 voted against -- a pro-European majority in the order of five to one.
Even more significant in present circumstances is the fact that 2012 is also the 50th anniversary of Sean Lemass's great European initiative. Although Lemass had failed to win an overall majority in the general election of October 1961, in January 1962 he won the approval of the Fianna Fail ard fheis for his European policy. National aims, he advised the ard fheis, "must conform to the emergence, in a political as well as an economic sense (my italics), of a union of Western European states, not as a vague prospect of the distant future but as a living reality of our own times". This was the message he spelt out in his 1962 tour of the EEC capitals. In July 1962, in an interview with The New York Times, he went even further, declaring that Ireland was "prepared to go into this integrated Europe without any reservations as to how far this will take us in the field of foreign policy and defence".
Although General de Gaulle's veto of the British application postponed Ireland's entry into Europe for a decade until after Lemass's death, he was its architect. The contrast between his vision, his boldness and his capacity for national leadership of a kind that commanded the support of the principal opposition party, Fine Gael, is as striking as it is depressing. Compare Sean Lemass's forging ahead on all European fronts with a fine disregard for his status as the leader of a minority government, with the pathetic and pusillanimous posturings of today's government ministers, with their massive parliamentary majority, on the issue of whether a new European treaty must be put to a referendum in Ireland.
"The matter is one that a lot of countries have to consider," Mr Kenny solemnly intoned. "I would never presume ... what the AG will advise," he added in the manner of Pontius Pilate. A host of legal experts, untrammeled by holding government office, have pointed out that if the likely referendum on the treaty is lost, it will paralyse only Ireland, not the other states, and senior EU sources have revealed that Irish officials fought tooth and nail against treaty change on the grounds that any such referendum would be doomed to defeat. Meanwhile Mr Gilmore's principal preoccupation, at least in public, is an anxiety that the UK should not be isolated. A laudable anxiety from an Irish perspective, no doubt, but one scarcely calculated to win support from the Franco-German axis and their allies in the heart of Europe.
Where Lemass always thought strategically about Europe, the defeatist concerns of today's ministers are essentially about tactics, and dubious tactics at that.
The difference is rooted in Lemass's understanding that the political dimensions of Ireland's relationship with Europe are paramount. This was what enabled him to blaze the trail for his immediate successors as Taoisigh to identify, occupy and never relinquish the high moral ground on Europe. What is finally coming to pass in 2012 is what Lemass anticipated as "a living reality" fully 50 years ago. That in the event of a crisis that threatened the integrity, even the survival, of the European project, Ireland must be prepared to make an unequivocal commitment to an "integrated Europe without any reservations".
Only the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, has shown some grasp of the political realities. Although, like his colleagues, he is running scared of a vote on the euro deal, he at least has had the political acumen to argue that the real question in any referendum would be "Do you want to maintain Ireland's position as a eurozone country?". I'd go further and say that the question in a 2012 referendum must be framed in such a way as to empower Irish governments to make whatever future commitments are necessary to keep Ireland at the heart of Europe without recourse to further referendums. This must be irrespective of whatever attitude might be adopted by the UK, for we cannot, in Lucinda Creighton's phrase, "revert to clinging on to the coattails of the UK".
The Opposition's reaction to Michael Noonan's remarks is clear proof that he is on the right track. Alarmism and irresponsible scaremongering bleated Fianna Fail, whose Finance spokesman, Michael McGrath, denounced what he described as Mr Noonan's extraordinary intervention as an insult to the Irish people's intelligence. Sinn Fein and the rag-tag-and-bobtail of Dail Independents are of like mind. The reason is obvious: the narrower the question in a referendum, the more closely it can be tied to the euro, to Nama, to the irresponsibility of the banks and public unhappiness about the imperatives of budgetary austerity. But the Irish people are not as stupid as Michael McGrath suggests and are acutely aware of the larger dimensions of the present crisis -- hence the larger, symbolic significance of that question I overheard in my local last week.
There are three scenarios for a referendum in 2012. The first and worst is that the Government, clinging to the crutch of legal advice, will try to enact a eurozone treaty without a referendum. President Higgins may well decide to refer such a bill to the Supreme Court and, even if he does not, the anti-European lobby who see this as their golden opportunity, will certainly do so. If the Supreme Court finds against the Government, as many lawyers think they will, the consequent referendum cannot be won because the Government will be on the back foot fighting a campaign which they were desperate to avoid and for which even the dogs in the street will know they have neither appetite nor energy.
The second scenario -- that the Government will hold a referendum because the Attorney General advises it to do so -- is almost as bad. Again, the voters will recognise the Government's reluctance, that it is grudgingly holding a referendum not because it wants to but because it must. Again, all the appetite, energy and momentum will rest with the Opposition and the likelihood is that such a referendum would also be lost.
The third scenario, and the only one with a serious prospect of success, is to seize the high moral ground and immediately start laying the foundations for a referendum campaign designed to reaffirm Ireland's unequivocal commitment to the project of an integrated Europe. The main theme of such a campaign, which must be bold, vigorous and enthusiastic, should be that we need and want a referendum because we cannot continue jeopardising our national interest. Because such a campaign must be genuinely national in its scope, it should seek to enlist the support of Fianna Fail much as Sean Lemass enlisted the support of Fine Gael in 1961-62.
Indeed, the success of such a campaign may well depend upon the attitude of Fianna Fail's leader, Micheal Martin. His choice, though daunting, is simple. Is he prepared to put patriotism before party? Will he succumb to the temptation of seeking to give the Government a bloody nose or will he put the cold imperatives of national interest before the cheap opportunism of party politics? Will he choose Sean Lemass as his role model or will he settle for a supporting role as cheerleader on the anti-European bandwagon of Gerry Adams?
Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin