Joe Higgins: 'We have been up against a major media campaign'

The meeting starts late because a few people have gone missing in the hotel. Inside the Walls Suite I of the Hilton, everybody else is waiting to go. The Socialist Party is hosting a public meeting on the Lisbon treaty, out here in Coolock, where developers' dreams have turned to dust.

The Hilton sits opposite Belmayne, one of the ghost developments that now litter the country. Back in the day, Belmayne was launched by celebrities, and was the subject of some controversy over adverts of models in suggestive poses: this apartment will do wonders for your sex life. Hosting public meetings run by the unsexy Socialist Party was hardly high on the Hilton's agenda when Belmayne was conceived, but the world has truly been turned on its head.

So has the campaign against the Lisbon treaty. Last year, the media appointed the suave Declan Ganley as the figurehead leader. He was flavour of the month and trailed a whiff of cordite. This time around, Ganley is a bit player. If you're looking for a figurehead for the No side, you need look no further than Joe Higgins.

Like him or be bored by him, Higgins has credibility. In June, he unseated two MEPs to take the third seat in Dublin in the European elections. His budget was minimal; his politics, despite the recession, still lacks broad appeal. But many admire his honesty at a time when the political classes had their snouts in the trough; others gave him a scratch because his long-standing routine about greedy developers and bankers ruining the country turned out to be true.

He is the only speaker at the meeting in Coolock. The Socialists tried to get local TDs Tommy Broughan and Richard Burton to debate, but they declined. There are only 17 people in the audience. This meeting will not make or break the referendum. In fact, it is safe to assume that all 17 are voting no. They came to hear Joe and he is telling it like it is.

Higgins launches into a speech that covers the parts of the treaty he opposes, particularly workers' rights, and the nature of the campaign for a yes vote. He excoriates the media for its biased coverage. "We have been up against a major media campaign," he says.

It's difficult to argue with him. There is far less balance in newsprint in particular this time around. It's as if the perceived urgency to return a yes vote has compromised the medium's capacity for balance.

He rightly points to the ludicrous name of the trendy pro-Lisbon group, We Belong You Decide – "whatever that means," he says. Maybe it's an attempt to make an organisation sound like a 1980s cheesy "save the world" number. Another trendy outfit, Generation Yes, he describes as "the youth wing of Ibec".

He has no compunction in decrying the Cóir poster suggesting the minimum wage could be reduced to €1.84. "It is a nonsense that has been a serious distraction," he says.

One valid point beyond dispute is his outrage that the European commissioner for transport, Antonia Tajani, was flown around the country by Michael O'Leary on Tuesday promoting a yes vote.

His speech is peppered with references to "orgies of greed" and "gambling casinos" and all that stuff. Principally, he thinks Lisbon will herald a superstate where corporate interests are paramount at the expense of workers, and where the armaments industry gets a leg-up. The European Defence Agency is "the guilty secret that the EU will never eulogise," he says.

The audience ask questions and make comments. For the most prominent figure on a side that persuaded the majority of voters to its way of thinking last time out, talking to a three-quarters-empty room must be dispiriting.

Ironically, it is probably the very economic circumstances that catapulted him to Europe that will now go towards ensuring he leads the anti-Lisbon campaign to defeat this time. Despite his assertion that the prevailing ethos in the EU has contributed to the economic collapse, fear of being cast adrift is likely to convince large sections of the electorate to ratify Lisbon. Voters' analysis may not be sophisticated or even make sense, but fear is a powerful motivator. Just ask the people in Cóir who used it to great effect last time.

On Thursday, Joe goes high-tech. He is in the Google headquarters to debate with Labour MEP Proinsias de Rossa. On the face of it, a tussle between two aging socialists might look like something out of One Million Years BC to the young, hip googlers. But the studio where the debate takes place is packed and an overflow room is required. The debate is also filmed for uploading onto the net.

Higgins and De Rossa trade the customary blows about articles, misleading interpretations and lies. At one stage, he hands De Rossa a copy of the treaty, but the latter throws it on the ground. It is when he is up against De Rossa, or one of the many trade unionists in the Yes camp, that Higgins' argument appears weakest. De Rossa points out that he too is a socialist. And if Joe's main argument – that corporatisation is hidden in Lisbon – is to be accepted, then all the others on the left who disagree must be either selling out or stupid.

He leaves Google, en route to the next debate on Today FM. After that he is due in Wynn's Hotel for a 7pm tussle. Then it's on to the RTE studios to go up against Micheál Martin on Prime Time. As the main figurehead on the No side, his last few weeks have been a whirl of debates around the country.

Unlike his perceived predecessor Ganley, there isn't a hell of a lot of glamour attachedto Higgins. He is, however, an old dog for the hard road, accustomed to the odd victory in a long march of campaigns that more often than not end in defeat. And while that looks like being his lot next Friday, he'll keep on keepin' on for the next assault on the citadel.