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Irish referendum to seal the fate of EU reform treaty

Latest update : 2008-06-11

On June 12, Ireland holds the only popular consultation on the Lisbon treaty on EU reform. Although all leading political parties support the text, its opponents have led a strong campaign and a victory for the "No" camp cannot be ruled out.

Read our three-part series on the Irish referendum

1. Irish referendum to seal the fate of EU reform treaty (below)

2. Economic woes threaten simplified EU treaty

3. Irish farmers trade 'yes' vote for favourable WTO deal


On June 12, all European eyes will turn to Ireland as the country’s three million voters take part in the only referendum on the Lisbon treaty on reform of the European Union, a “simplified” version of the constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

An Irish "no" would sink the treaty and represent a huge defeat for its promoters, chief among them French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"Lisbon treaty faces rejection as no vote doubles in latest poll" warned a headline in The Irish Times as it published a poll showing that  the number of people intending to vote no had reached 35% since the last poll three weeks ago, while the number of the yes side has declined to 30%.

Worries about Ireland’s sovereignty in key areas such as taxation, military neutrality and agricultural and trade policy have fuelled scepticism about the treaty.


"The best deal that could be on the table"

The ruling Fianna Fáil party has rushed to support a yes vote after an untimely change of government on May 7. Brian Cowen, the new taoiseach (prime minister), said on May 22 that a yes vote was in Ireland’s “vital national interest”.

“I am satisfied that the Lisbon treaty is the best deal that could be on the table,” he said. He later said that he was “not contemplating” the prospect of a no vote.

Nearly all the parties represented in parliament back the yes side, whether they are in the majority or in the opposition. Sinn Féin, the left-wing, nationalist party that advocates the reunification of Ireland is the Lisbon treaty’s only parliamentary opponent.

Analysts agree that only a high turnout could guarantee a yes win. In past Irish referenda, opponents to EU treaties have relied on a core group of no voters who always go out and vote, while the yes side needs support from less committed voters who only show up when turnout is high.

But “the perilous state of the public's knowledge” about the treaty was a threat to the yes side, wrote Richard Sinnott, a professor of political science at University College Dublin (UCD), inThe Irish Times. Voters who do not understand it are more likely to turn out and vote no, he argued.
In 2001, Irish voters rejected another controversial European treaty, the Nice treaty, with a resounding 54% no vote, before ratifying it in a second referendum one year later. Today, Sinnott says, “Public opinion now is more like opinion in Nice 1 than opinion in Nice 2.”

This time around, voters are not likely to get a second chance. “For Nice, there was a margin to renegotiate,” Diana Panke, a lecturer on European politics lecturer at UCD, told FRANCE 24. She was referring to arrangements such as the signature of a protocol exempting Dublin from participation in the EU's military activities. "But this time, 27 member states have agreed on a text and Ireland has already opted out of every controversial activity," she added.

Non-partisan groups

The no side started its campaign earlier than the established political parties and received a boost from non-partisan groups, such as Libertas, a campaigning outfit founded by a successful businessman. The powerful Irish Farmers’ Association, who originally backed the treaty, withdrew its support in protest at the orientation of  World Trade Organisation negotiations on agriculture before rallying the yes side again after lengthy internal debates on June 3.

"Two months ago, there were only 'no' posters on the streets, mostly from Libertas," said Panke. "But in the past two weeks, all the parties have started their campaigns." They now have only a few days left to convince Irish voters.

Photo by Free Stater

Date created : 2008-05-31