Referenda still on the agenda on both sides of the border

Tuesday's Stormont session, which rubber-stamped the executive's agreement to extend the cross community compromise over the justice department, was rather more predictable than Tuesday's Dail sitting, when Enda Kenny confirmed that the Irish people would be given their chance to say yes or no to the European fiscal compact.

However, referenda featured within both chambers, north and south.

In Stormont it was the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.

Conall McDevitt waved a copy of the agreement around, arguing that true republicans would respect the verdict of the people and not alter the form of power-sharing they approved 14 years ago.

His target was fairly obviously Sinn Fein, but whilst Martin McGuinness replied only tangentially - pointing out that all the other major parties in the Republic had welcomed the Hillsborough deal on justice - it was Peter Robinson who took the SDLP's argument about democratic legitimacy head on.

The DUP leader argued that just because there had been a referendum 14 years ago that did not mean the system should be frozen in time.

He said the people had spoken in numerous elections since then and thereby given their consent to the consequent changes to the Stormont arrangements.


Of course Mr Robinson, having been in the "No" camp in 1998, feels no need to swear fealty to the Good Friday Agreement.

Beyond this point, however, his argument with the SDLP seemed to symbolise the gulf between the Irish political system, in which referenda, sometimes on apparently technical points, are a regular feature, and the British approach in which they tend to be few and far between.

Whilst Mr McDevitt may have sought to cause Sinn Fein some embarrassment with his talk of the 1998 referendum, one imagines Gerry Adams will be rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of a 2012 European referendum.

Just like a fish needs water, the Sinn Fein machine thrives on electoral contests, and the forthcoming campaign provides party activists with a chance to portray themselves as the leaders of the anti austerity camp, taking on the other "establishment" parties.

Given last weekend's Sunday Times survey suggesting Sinn Fein is now attracting 25% support in comparison to Fianna Fail's 16%, the party will head into this referendum in confident form.

Aengus O'Snodaigh may have - pardon the pun - blotted his copy book as a result of the bizarre "Inkgate" affair, but the Taoiseach has inadvertently assisted Sinn Fein in diverting attention elsewhere.

If they fight a good fight for the "No" camp and lose, Sinn Fein will probably strengthen their position.

If they win and the Irish people vote "No", then all bets are off - as the future may prove hard to predict, not just for Sinn Fein but also for Ireland and its relationship with Europe.