“…we need and want a referendum because we cannot continue jeopardising our national interest”

Ronan Fanning has an interesting piece in today’s Sunday Independent which argues that Ireland needs to make up its mind on what it’s defining purpose will be in Europe by the time it hosts the Presidency for the first half of 2013.

That job is not as easy as it was back in 1961, when Sean Lemass defined it maximally in an EEC that was yet to experience the growing pains of the following decades. Like Marx before the Marxist state the vision was then thing. Fanning:

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.”

Bold words from the one time Irish revolutionary fighter, but ones he never saw drawn into practical actions. Nevertheless, Dr Fanning recommends returning to those high principles for today’s leaders:

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”.

Which is all fine, when you consider that up to now, Ireland has benefited from such homogeniety on the desirability of the European project. That project is currently extracting a price that is not so universally popular as it once was.

Nevertheless, Fanning usefully sketches out a number of scenarios for the coming year:

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.

That last would require a politically serious engagement on the matter of the Irish National Interest, a subject usually starved of any substantive public debate until it is much too late (ie, the week after any critical referendum campaign as actually started).