Tuesday 23 July 2019

Shane Ross: Bruton reveals escape route

WHY did they pick May 31? The choice of such an early date for the poll on the fiscal treaty was always a bit of a mystery.

Conspiracy theorists believed that the Government had commissioned a couple of favourable opinion polls. So the Cabinet decided to make a break for the line.

The conspiracy theorists were right. Unfortunately, the conspiracy was worse than they thought. There was obviously an opinion poll as well. But after Richard Bruton's little outburst on Thursday, the deeper referendum plot has become crystal clear.

Richard admitted that in the event of a 'No' victory: "I think Ireland will be looking to say can we vote again..."

The May 31 date allows plenty of time for a re-run before the year-end deadline for ratification. A second poll in the autumn remains likely if the 'No' side wins. That is why it was chosen.

Fine Gael is cursed. They have been landed with an honest man in a key position. Bruton is incapable of concealing the truth in the way that is second nature to some of his colleagues. So last week he let his guard down. Instead of ducking the question, he revealed the way Government ministers were thinking: the May 31 date was a trial run.

Do not believe the denials. Richard was voicing the consensus view. Ministers certainly regarded a second referendum as a nightmare -- but it was an option, an escape route. Of course, that route would enable voters to say 'No' in the knowledge that they would be able to reverse the outcome. Just like they did in the case of the Nice and Lisbon treaties.

If a decision had been made that there would be no second bite at the cherry, is it not fair enough to assume that Richard Bruton, a senior cabinet insider, would know about it? It wasn't. And he didn't. It was the unspoken, last-ditch route to refuge.

No wonder Kenny and Gilmore have consistently refused all suggestions that the treaty should be postponed until the autumn. Postponement would close off their chance of a second referendum. If they postponed the vote, their first plebiscite would be their last.

Last week the Referendum Commission ruled that there could be no postponement under the present 1994 Referendum Act. In response I immediately introduced a short Private Member's Bill to allow the Government to postpone the referendum if events elsewhere overtook the treaty.

Eamon Gilmore dismissed the Bill out of hand. The offer was an inconvenience to him. It suited him and the Taoiseach perfectly that they were unable -- by law -- to postpone. That way they still get a second chance.

They are very foolish. An Irish Independent opinion poll on Wednesday revealed that there were 35 per cent 'Don't Knows'. If you add on the 4 per cent 'Won't Vote', the puzzled floaters are leading the field.

The reason why there are so many 'Don't Knows' is obvious. The ground under the nation's feet is moving too fast. The most important date in the European calendar is now June 17. On that day the Greek people will vote for a new government. On the same day France will hold assembly elections. Both events are crucial to the future of Europe. Yet by June 17 Ireland will have voted on the referendum -- for the first time anyway.

Sometime in late June after we have voted, the treaty may be changed in line with the wishes of French President Francois Hollande. Changes championed by Hollande could suit Ireland and the 'Yes' side.

Sometime, after June 17, Greece may leave the euro. The consequences could be explosive for Ireland. Last week Charles Dallara, the head of the Institute of Finance, visited Ireland and described the possible damage from Greece leaving the euro as "somewhere between catastrophic and Armageddon".

Dallara is the man who negotiated the Greek sovereign debt deal. Dramatically he included Ireland in his gloomy forecasts in the event of a Greek departure.

On Friday the Financial Times' most influential columnist, Martin Wolf, gave space to a review of a Greek exit by an economist from ING. It was devastating, specifically mentioning that a disorderly departure "is likely to trigger bank runs in Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain and even further afield". It predicted serious falls in output in Ireland. It included Ireland in what it called the "doomloop".

It is no harm to consider the more objective views of outsiders. We are receiving little but propaganda at home from the 'Yes' and the 'No' campaigns, both fighting nakedly partisan agendas that require party-political victories in the May 31 poll. The country comes a poor second.

Instead, they should heed the "doomloop" in the event of Greece blasting us into contagion.

No one should be more mindful of it than Minister for Finance Michael Noonan who seems to have been popping polling-day pills in recent weeks. Never more so than last Wednesday, when he was asked about the consequences for Ireland of a Greek exit at the Bloomberg Ireland Economic Summit.

Obviously mindful of the referendum, he trivialised the reality -- "the doomloop" -- facing Ireland. He delighted the audience with his humour, responding with a question and a broad smile: "Apart from feta cheese, what other Greek items do you put in the shopping basket?" His audience was reported to have burst into laughter.

Michael Noonan is a delightful man. He possesses a barbed wit unmatched by any other TD. He lacks the giant ego enjoyed by many of his self-besotted colleagues. He is a master of the bon mot and cannot resist the sharp response.

But Greece is no laughing matter. Greece has the potential to drag Ireland into oblivion with it. Our finance minister reduced an economic disaster to a frivolity about feta cheese. The Greek crisis is not about trade. It is about financial contagion.

The markets responded to the Greek dangers with rather less humour than Noonan. Irish bond rates hit levels not seen for six months.

On the same day the prospect of a second bailout became a virtual certainty. At the same event Noonan quietly prepared the ground for this oncoming humiliation, by admitting that Ireland might not -- after all the Government's claims -- be able to return to the capital markets in late 2013.

This time he used the Greek crisis as cover for the climbdown from previous claims that no further rescue funds would be necessary. He was on firmer ground, as the need for a second bailout is the best reason for a 'Yes' vote.

While Michael Noonan and Richard Bruton were scoring own goals for the 'Yes' campaign and some of the 'No' campaigners were evading answering the awkward question of where Ireland would access money in the case of a defeat, events offstage went almost unnoticed.

On Thursday morning -- according to the BBC Business news -- the new French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici repeated that "the treaty will not be ratified as is . . . it must be completed with a chapter on growth with a growth strategy." Hmm.

If he gets his way -- and if Greece leaves the euro -- where does that leave the treaty and our referendum?

Ask Richard Bruton. He is about the only person in Cabinet you can depend on to tell you the truth.

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