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Three Cheers for Joan Burton

Posted on: March 8th, 2012

Ireland is, for once, in the driving seat in Europe. Let us enjoy the experience.

Enda Kenny was suddenly centre stage in Brussels on Thursday. No longer on the sidelines, you can bet your bottom deutschmark that Angela Merkel whispered in his ear; that she asked sotto voce if he could help her pet project — the fiscal treaty — over the referendum hurdle.

Angela will have been looking for the inside track.

In theory, the Irish referendum was not on the agenda, but it was on everyone’s lips.

Hopefully, Enda affected to be doubtful about the outcome when Angela or Nicolas tapped him on the shoulder and asked him for the lowdown on the referendum.

Perhaps he even confided in them, hinting at the results of a few negative private opinion polls. Hesitantly, he could have explained to Angela that we Irish are a very forgiving people. We bear no grudges, but are not gluttons for her austerity treaty.

He would do his best — but, funnily enough, yes… she could help.

Then perhaps he appealed for solidarity from his Christian Democratic sister, the German chancellor. And he could even have muttered a few timely reminders about the nightmare of the Lisbon referendum.

Let us hope he put the wind up Angela. And that he rather enjoyed the experience.

European leaders are keen as mustard that Ireland votes ‘Yes’. They are spinning a narrative of nonchalance. They are briefing that the treaty can go ahead with only 12 countries, that if Ireland wants to be left behind… well, who cares?

They are even saying that this referendum is different — because, this time, no country has a veto on the treaty.

The spinners are bluffing.

They certainly care. Otherwise they would never have agreed to tailor the wording of the treaty specifically to avoid a referendum in Ireland.

Now that they have failed with this little dodge, they will wish to soothe the wounds of the Irish people.

The last thing that European leaders need is for Ireland to opt out of this treaty.

In their eyes, the new rules of enforcement are necessary because of wayward souls like ourselves, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy. They are horrified at the prospect of an errant outrider breaking the rules of fiscal rectitude, while remaining within the eurozone.

Europe is on a bit of a spit.

Bravo. It is time that Enda played hardball, took advantage of their dilemma — and put Ireland first.

He must seek a substantial write-off of the Anglo promissory notes — the vehicle that threatens to impose austerity on us for years to come — as the price of an easy passage for the plebiscite.

Kenny is playing a canny game — publicly. Good for him. On Thursday, he insisted that the Anglo promissory note is a completely separate matter from the referendum.

The Taoiseach says there is no linkage. Indeed he said “the Irish people will not be bribed” to pass the treaty.

Of course not. But it sure would help if we were given a leg-up on the debt.

Eamon Gilmore was peddling the same line in the Dail, just as Enda was on the plane for Brussels. He repeated that there was no link between the two.

Nobody is fooled. Taoiseach and Tanaiste know that powerful European leaders, with massive egos, cannot be seen back home to have surrendered in the face of threats from little Ireland.

But at long last we have been handed a weapon.

Nobody seems to have told Joan Burton — the woman who should have been Gilmore’s candidate for finance minister — not to fire the torpedo.

Joan, the Social Protection Minister, released the exocet when speaking to the Financial Times on Thursday. (It is a moot question what a Social Protection Minister was doing talking to the FT about a fiscal compact on behalf of the Irish Government.)

But Joan told the truth — which is a dangerous path to take in the current Coalition’s spinning game.

Her choice of the FT — with its European and global reach — may have made her cabinet colleagues mental. It will have raised eyebrows — and no little trepidation — in Brussels, where it will have been widely read.

The FT’s story was unambiguous, stating clearly that: “The European Union should cut the cost of Ireland’s banking bailout to help it pass the eurozone fiscal pact in a high- stakes referendum, according to a senior Irish minister.”

It went on to quote the minister as saying that “a move by Europe on the promissory notes would be very helpful in the referendum campaign and would be noted by the Irish people”. And in a direct link with the annual payment to repay the Anglo debt, she added: “Yes, of course it would be helpful, because €3.1bn is almost as much as the public spending cuts that have taken place annually.”

Wow. The shorthand was devastating: No more Anglo repayments means no more public spending cuts.

Burton was on the button. That is exactly what the people want to hear. Three cheers for an honest minister.

Cynics are suggesting that Joan was part of a more devious strategy. Was she sent out to relay the real message to Merkozy? A more menacing message that could be delivered by a maverick minister while the Taoiseach and Tanaiste hold the official line?

Perhaps, but Joan is no puppet of party leader Gilmore — who, after all, gave her no support when she was pitching for the big prize of Finance. She owes him nothing.

Yet there is undoubtedly a sub-plot operating. The strange refusal of the Government to give any indication of a referendum date is consistent with a deeper strategy. Presumably they are hoping to announce a deal on the Anglo promissory notes a couple of weeks before polling day?

Irish diplomats are probably working overtime in all 27 European capitals.

If the deal is struck, in accordance with their promises to Angela and Nicolas, Enda and Eamon will insist that the two issues are in no way linked. They will claim a “historic breakthrough”, but will maintain that the timing — just before polling day — is a coincidence.

Joan can express her pleasure at the achievement of her ambitions. And then she can demand, following the historic debt write-off, that her Department of Social Protection is spared any further cuts.

Mad bankers in Europe and mad bankers in Ireland created the Anglo debt. Citizens are being asked to repay it. The Irish public is entitled to demand that the European austerity treaty is matched by a reduction in austerity elsewhere. The link between the Anglo promissory notes and the future austerity of the treaty is crystal clear.

Enda and Eamon have been gifted an unexpected opening. They dreaded the prospect of a referendum, anticipating a humiliating defeat.

Suddenly they can turn it into a positive opportunity.

The referendum provides them with a sudden lever in their efforts to extract concessions on our debt from Europe. If Europe delivers on the debt, Ireland can deliver on the treaty.