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Could Ireland vote 'No'?

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus   |   May 29, 2008 at 12:49 PM   |   Comments

MUNICH, Germany, May 29 (UPI) -- Politics can make strange bedfellows, but there can be few stranger partners for Britain's Conservatives than Ireland's Sinn Fein party, known for many years as the political wing of the IRA.

But Sinn Fein is the only Irish party campaigning for a "No" vote in the June 12 referendum on the new European Treaty, in what looks to be a very close vote. While Britain's Conservatives complain bitterly that the Irish people are being given a decisive say that the British have been denied, Ireland's referendum has Europe's other 26 member states deeply concerned at the prospect of an upset.

If the Irish vote "No," as they did over the European Union's last Treaty of Nice, it would disrupt the EU's grand design to overhaul its governing system. If the Irish vote "Yes," then for the first time the EU will have a full-scale president of Europe and an EU foreign minister with his or her own diplomatic service.

On past form, the EU in the event of a "No" vote would simply try to tell the Irish to go away and vote again. But the EU and the Irish political establishment have already poured unprecedented resources and heavyweight political manpower into securing a "Yes" vote. Defeat this time could be fatal.

The latest polls suggest 41 percent for "Yes" and 33 percent for "No," but the "No" camp is swiftly catching up, taking steadily more of the previous "Don't Knows." Turnout will be crucial, and the "No" voters seem more motivated than the "Yes" camp. And the economic downturn, with falling house prices and soaring fuel costs, has left the government vulnerable to a protest vote.

The referendum is significant because it is the only such public vote on the issue across Europe. After the humiliating defeat of the European Constitution in the Dutch and French referendums two years ago, the EU elite have moved the goalposts and ensured that the other states ratified the new treaty by parliamentary vote instead.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos was reported by El Pais, Spain's leading newspaper, saying that there was an "unwritten agreement" among EU leaders not to have any further referenda on the EU, because public consultation was being used as "a political instrument against Europe."

The British government is currently fighting a lawsuit brought by anti-EU campaigners that claims the promise of a referendum in the United Kingdom was broken, and the promise should be kept.

The Irish government is plainly rattled. Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, who is campaign director for Prime Minister Brian Cowen's governing Fianna Fail party, said this week, "We are taking nothing for granted and are going to redouble our efforts over the next 18 days."

Declan Ganley, chairman of Libertas, one of the main groups opposing the treaty, claimed the latest opinion polls demonstrated "an intensive and expensive spending spree by supporters of the treaty had served only to narrow the gap between the two sides."

"Despite two weeks of intensive campaigning by the 'Yes' side, and repeated personal attacks on people opposed to the treaty, the gap has in fact narrowed. We are seeing a referendum campaign that will go down to the wire. One thing is clear -- the more people learn about the treaty, the less they like it," Ganley said.

The "No" campaign makes much of the way EU grandees, who believe they know what is best for Europe even if the voters do not, have said the new treaty on which the Irish will vote is simply a cleverly re-drafted version of the defeated and discredited Constitution.

"Public opinion will be led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly," former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who chaired the team that drafted the ill-fated constitution, wrote in the French newspaper Le Monde. "All the earlier proposals will be in the new text, but will be hidden and disguised in some way."

A new attempt to justify the new treaty was launched in Britain this week by Sir Brian Crowe, former adviser to EU External Affairs Commissioner Javier Solana, who says the new foreign minister EU diplomatic service will give the EU more weight in world affairs.

"The only way for the United Kingdom and other EU countries to help to shape tomorrow's world is to act together within the EU. The EU currently performs inadequately in foreign policy and its arrangements, which developed informally from primitive beginnings, have not been fit for purpose. The changes to be made under the Lisbon Treaty will now give it more effective means to formulate and implement agreed common policies, and will help to generate the necessary political will among member states," Crowe claims in his report, "Roadmap for Success," published by the Royal Institute for International Affairs.

This may be an argument that can sway former great powers like Britain and France who still like to think they can "shape tomorrow's world." But for Irish voters, the country's tradition of strict neutrality is too precious to be risked for any EU superpower pretensions.

© 2008 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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