44 days to Lisbon: but politicians cut their campaign from 4 to 2 weeks…

You know what? The smart money has to be on a Yes to the Lisbon treaty. Libertas has left the field having had most of its most effective TPMs punctured by the slightly scatological fix that is the so-called legal guarantees. The climate this year is way colder than last, and there’s that tapping finger to remind voters of the one letter difference between Ireland and Iceland, with the implication that the real difference between solvency and bankruptcy is membership of the European Union. Even Sinn Fein is complaining that it’s having difficulty in fundraising this time round… But Elaine Byrne doesn’t see much action on the pro side either, and wonders if the mainstream party’s are about to blow it for a second time

With 44 days to go, our politicians are still on their holidays. When the Dáil and Seanad return on September 16th, it will only be two weeks to referendum day.

The first Lisbon referendum marked a profound rejection of the Irish political establishment. A majority of the voting public did not believe the pro-treaty explanations advocated by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the Greens and the Progressive Democrats. Instead they trusted Sinn Féin, Libertas and a medley of Catholic conservative and pro-neutrality groups.

This time, our political class has stepped back and civil society has stepped up. A number of pro-Lisbon groups launched their campaigns in July under the slogans of Women for Europe, We Belong and Ireland for Europe. So, instead of placing our hope in the political leadership of Brian Cowen, Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore and John Gormley, it is now in the hands of Nell McCafferty, Bill Cullen and The Edge. For direction on Europe, we now turn to our sporting heroes Packie Bonner, Robbie Keane and Denis Hickey.

There’s something very deeply wrong here.

Hang on: yes of course civic involvement in Irish public life should be eagerly embraced. Politics is no longer the exclusive preserve of politicians. Active citizenship politics probably has some way to go when compared to that of our European neighbours.

No, what’s utterly alarming is that our politicians are stepping back precisely at the point when we need them to jump forward.

It also reads like an alarming collapse in confidence amongst the political class as a whole… But, as Byrne notes, that’s not even the half of it. And it’s more than Sinn Fein that’s broke in the south:

Today, in the absence of political leadership, it is civil society we turn to. Irish politics is steadily imploding. Informal conversations and access to all of the political party’s financial accounts, (except Fianna Fáil’s), suggest that our political parties are in severe financial difficulty. Democracy is not free. Under the legislation, elections and referendums can only be funded by donations.

An expectation that political parties will mount a sustained campaign to pass the Lisbon referendum assumes that they have the resources to do so. Professional campaigning costs money and political parties don’t have it. In the future, will financial considerations determine the setting of a date for a referendum in order to avoid the implications of the McKenna judgment (see also Crotty and Coughlan), or decisions not to contest a presidential election, or pushing the boat out for a snap election?

The country’s heading for some pretty hot water (in or out of Lisbon). Byrne goes on to note that some of its biggest decisions will be made in the Autumn by a government with a steadily dwindling majority (and a Ceann Comhairle whose ministerial receipts would have him drummed out of any major Westminster party). The decisive call may come from a man Fintan O’Toole called a liar and cheat last April. And a Fine Gaeler to boot, until he was kicked to touch by then party leader John Bruton…

Deja vu all over again…? If ever Ireland needed a break with the past it was now… but what kind of break will almost certainly come down to happenstance than through any deliberate action on the part of the government, or even the people… Up to now there has been little sense that there is anyone prepared to define and take forward anything remotely approximating ‘the national interest’…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty