Monday, July 14, 2008

Sarky Sarko

Way back in early 2000 Brian Cowen was made Minister for Foreign Affairs. I was editing Magill at the time and wrote a long profile, with Damian Corless, about Cowen (yep, Fianna Fail’s dauphin as the French might say).

A friend of his, a sharp-witted Labour politician, mocked him kindly. In a general comment about his social habit and dress sense, he said, yes, there have been times when Brian has spoken in the Dáil sporting a tie that had been dipped in a pint of porter the night before.

There was a bit of metropolitan snobbishness about Biffo, the original bruiser politician from Offaly, moving to Iveagh House and doing the round of formal dinners, good wines and Ferrero Rocher. There was no need to worry. Cowen was absorbed into Foreign Affairs more thoroughly than the Norman who invaded Ireland who later became ‘níos Gaelaí ná na Gaeil féin’. He went native.

It will be strange to see Cowen alongside the ultra-sophisticated Nicholas Sarkozy at the Bastille Day celebrations in France today. That’s because we still haven’t got used to him in the statesman role. But then it took a while for us to get used to Bertie in that role too.

Sure, there’s no such thing as a shallow end when you become Taoiseach (please refer to Lisbon and to the economic downturn). But there’s still a buffer period. With the exception of the Sunday Independent, most others have bided their time. The first serious assessment of a new leader or new government is made once the psychological landmark of the first 100 days has been reached. Cowen still has some 40 days to go to reach that mark, but already you can hear pencils being sharpened.

For all that, it’s still too early to see how Cowen will disport himself on the international stage. One aspect of commentary over Lisbon that has has been the recurring theme that our EU partners are angry with us, or are in a huff with us, or now want to punish us for our ingratitude. What’s perplexing about it is the acceptance that they are right and we are in the wrong for rejecting the referendum.

In other words, will Sarko be sarky about it all?

Well, there’s been no evidence to support that. We were the only EU member state that was constitutionally obliged to hold a referendum. And what people were being asked to accept was an imperfect, complicated, rambling hard-to-follow proposition, which dealt with a multitude of often disconnected issues, a lot of which were dealing with back office functions. Sure, the net effect of it was, on the whole, benefecial but…

It was the constitution cobbled into a treaty, or mutton dressed as lamb.

The rejection of it should not be accepted by Irish people or the media as a source of shame, or that we are ingrates who bit the hand that fed.

In fairness to Cowen he has not got into the mode of blaming the population for their stupidity. He has recognised that the failure in selling the treaty was more complex than that.

And Sarkozy, of all European politicians, understands the many - and sometimes contradicttory - motivations behind the vote, having gone through the same process in France three years ago.

Did the treaty attempt to do too many things, thus sewing confusion into the minds of people? Any EU Treaty will, by definition, have implications for a country’s sovereignty. Rather than making the self-defeating argument that there will be no change, should not the pro-treaty people say, yes it will bring about all these change, but, hey! those changes will be for the good? We need a Europe that is fit for purpose when biffing it out with the Yanks, the Chinese, the Russians, the Indians and the new South American powers like Brazile.

A kind of revolution in terms of thinking is needed. It’s called selling the treaty for what it is. And as for the other revolution… Happy Bastille Day.

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