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Ireland heads to polls over EU treaty

The Irish decide Thursday whether or not to back the European Union's reform treaty. Ireland is the only one of the 27 EU member states holding a referendum on the issue, a vote that is expected to be close. (Eve Irvine reports from Dublin)

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Read Thomas Hubert's article on the Irish referendum


Ireland goes to the polls Thursday for a tightly-fought referendum on whether to back a major European Union reform treaty which will be watched nervously across the 27-nation bloc.

Voting stations open at 7:00 am (0600 GMT) after several weeks of campaigning in which the "yes" side, led by Prime Minister Brian Cowen and featuring all bar one of the main political parties, has struggled to get its message across.

Despite their lack of establishment support, a motley assortment of groups campaigning for a "no" vote is forcing the referendum battle down to the line -- the last opinion polls put the two sides too close to call.

Ireland is voting on whether to back the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which aims to make decision-making across the bloc more efficient following recent expansion, particularly in eastern Europe.

It is the only European nation holding a referendum on the treaty, which has already been approved through a parliamentary vote by 18 other European nations and if it votes "no", the EU will be pitched into serious crisis.

But many of its roughly three million voters say they do not see why they should support a document which they simply do not understand and which even Cowen admits he has not read cover-to-cover.

Many are also worried by claims from some in the "no" camp that the referendum will threaten Irish sacred cows like military neutrality and the ban on abortion, claims strongly rejected by Cowen.

The Taoiseach (Irish for prime minister) made a last campaign push Wednesday with a whirlwind tour of his home area of the Irish Midlands.

He later urged people to remember the key part the EU played in Ireland's economic boom in the 1990s -- as well as how it could help the nation withstand the effects of the credit crunch.

"At a time of growing economic uncertainty, it is in Ireland’s vital national interest to have a reformed European Union working for it," said Cowen, who only took over from Bertie Ahern as premier a month ago.

"After 35 years of respecting and helping Ireland, the EU has earned the right not to be seen as a threat to us."

Meanwhile Declan Ganley, the businessman behind prominent opposition group Libertas, urged people to vote "no" so that Ireland could retain a stronger voice in Europe which he says would be wiped out by the treaty.

"No good reasons for a 'yes' vote have been given in this campaign," he said.

"I hope, and I firmly believe, that the Irish people will vote 'no' and that the work can immediately begin on constructing a better vision of Europe for all its 490 million citizens".

An Irish Times opinion poll last week gave the "no" camp a five-point lead, with 30 percent saying they were opposed because they did not understand the treaty.

Another poll, by this week's Sunday Business Post newspaper, put the "yes" campaign ahead by just three points and suggested growing momentum for opponents.

Ireland has form on causing upsets in EU referendums -- in 2001, its voters rejected the Nice Treaty, a result overturned in a second poll the following year.

This time, though, Cowen, of the centre-right Fianna Fail, and other leading politicians insist that there is "no plan B" in case of a rejection.

The Lisbon Treaty replaces the EU constitution, which was effectively killed off by French and Dutch voters in referendums in 2005, pitching the bloc into the worst crisis of its 50-year history.

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