Civilised Bertie is even nice to 'loolahs'
'Bertie out!" roared the small band of students protesting college fees outside the O'Reilly Hall in UCD. Lord knows where they've been for the past 16 months, but Bertie's been out for some time now.
But the former Taoiseach is still keeping busy, and he loves a bit of conciliation. After all, he -- with the help of the odd dig-out from his pals Tony Blair and Bill Clinton -- brought about peace in the North. And for most of his tenure in the Big Chair, he also kept the social partners well-fed and happy, and (until the bitter end) kept his own Soldiers of Destiny from inward revolt.
So he must have jumped at the chance to chair a debate on the Lisbon referendum in UCD last night which involved heavyweights from both campaigns -- a debate which has become considerably more tetchy in the last few days.
After all, it surely would be a piece of cake after dealing with the rabid likes of Big Ian and Adamantine Adams, even if the panel included Lisbon firebrands such as former president of EU Pat Cox and Libertas's Declan Ganley -- the pair had already had a ferocious set-to yesterday morning on Pat Kenny's show.
It was a packed house for the Law Society debate: on the 'No' side was Declan Ganley; Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald; Patricia McKenna; Padraig Mannion of the Workers' Party; Michael O'Brien of the Socialist Party; and Brian Hickey of Coir. Flying the pro-treaty flag were former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald; Pat Cox; former Dublin Lord Mayor Eibhin Byrne; Senator Deirdre de Burca of the Green Party; Brendan Butler, IBEC's director of European Affairs; and Ross Maguire of UCD's Law Society.
There was a bit of good-natured warm-up from the Law Soc's secretary: "You're on safe ground here, so you can drop the Northside accent," he suggested to the honourable chairman.
But the accent was still in place when Chairman Bertie laid down the law. Each speaker had seven minutes, and the audience could make points of order during five of those. Oh, and there was to be no questions to the chair. "As chairman I'm neutral," assured the man who once memorably described the 'No' side during the last referendum campaign as "loolahs".
It was all terribly civilised from the off. Eiblin Bryne, Michael O'Brien and Deirdre de Burca all got through their speeches with any interruptions from the floor.
Patricia McKenna got stuck into the issue of the militarisation of the EU. "How can you be neutral if you sign up for a militaristic pact?" she demanded, as a member of the audience shot to his feet.
But Patricia waved him away. "No, no, you can't come in . . . will you please sit down, I refuse to take you," she said, winding up to denounce the treaty as "a panacea for the military industry -- there is no opt-out for Ireland in any part of this treaty. If we say 'no' there is no turning back".
IBEC's Brendan Butler on the 'Yes' side peppered his speech with economic figures. "We want to send a message that Ireland is open for business," he stated. The text is the same, he pointed out, but there are differences. "When the country last voted on Lisbon, we were losing 100 jobs a day, it's now 600 jobs a day."
There was a feisty performance from Coir's Brian Hickey, given that he was facing a hall which was quite clearly populated with more 'Yes' than 'No' voters. "I see the 'Yes' side are here in numbers," he said. "I can only reply that the 'No' side are out canvassing," he added, to laughter.
But not everyone was amused by some aspects of the Coir campaign. One member of the audience tackled Brian on certain posters put out by his group. "Why have pictures of old people and foetuses? That's pure scaremongering, you should be ashamed of yourselves," he fumed.
The local lad Ross Maguire brought the house down with his witty oration for the 'Yes' side. He pointed out that Trocaire had come out in favour of the treaty, stating that it was good for channeling funds into the eradication of poverty. So Ross had reached this No-inspired conclusion: "Either giving money to poor people is bad, or giving money to poor people is insane," he reckoned, as the home crowd roared in approval.
Mary Lou McDonald took to the podium with her usual vigour. "The idea that Europe is waiting in the wings to save us is quite frankly ludicrous," she said dismissively. "The Government will tell you that after the last referendum they looked into their hearts, De Valera style. Wouldn't that be reassuring if it was the case," she said. "At the 11th hour they cobbled together words and declarations -- in fact nothing has changed," she declared.
And throughout all the talking, Bertie said not a word. He was even nice to the loolahs.