Pendulum swings towards Irish ‘No’s’

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Series Details Vol.7, No.22, 31.5.01, p13
Publication Date 31/05/2001
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Date: 31/05/01

The run-up to next week's Irish vote on the Nice Treaty has produced more than its fair share of bickering. David Cronin predicts the final result may be far closer than first expected

TWO weeks ago a dazzling fireworks display projected the EU's 12-star emblem across the Dublin skyline. Watched by half a million people, the event was the main attraction in the St Patrick's Day festival - rescheduled after foot-and-mouth fears caused celebrations marking the national holiday in March to be postponed.

The subliminal message conveyed by this pyrotechnic imagery did not go unnoticed. "The organisers might as well have said vote Yes to Nice," said one onlooker, referring to the Republic's 7 June referendum on the EU's most recent treaty, signed in December in the South of France.

Given that half of the h2.5 million spent on the festivities came from public funds, it was a surprise that none of the treaty's opponents accused the organisers of pro-Union propaganda. Such a gripe could be dismissed as hysterical, of course, but would not have been out of place in a campaign dominated by acerbic bickering.

Some of the least restrained comments have been made by Bertie Ahern, Ireland's Taoiseach (prime minister). Using emotive rhetoric, he has accused those urging a No vote of forming an alliance with Tory eurosceptics in Britain whose 'real agenda' is to destroy Ireland. These allegations - fuelled by an appeal from a maverick Conservative MP in Westminster for donations to the Irish No campaign - are laced with irony as the anti-treaty side comprises a rag bag of Republicans, Greens, militant socialists and Catholic fundamentalists. "We're probably the last people Maggie Thatcher would want to help," observed one.

Ahern's intemperate outbursts have led some pundits to suggest he is genuinely scared that the referendum could fail - a possibility also raised by Michael Noonan, the leader of the biggest opposition party, Fine Gael.

In theory, the referendum should be carried by a comfortable majority. Virtually all the main pillars of the establishment - the major parties, trade unions, farmer and employer groups - are advocating a Yes vote. The only real exception to that list is some of the biggest-selling newspapers. Last weekend the right-leaning Sunday Independent carried a stinging critique of the Yes campaign, which claimed Ahern is attempting to "blackmail" the electorate with his "facile" arguments that those who oppose Nice are opposing enlargement. "Europe has been good for Ireland," it declared, "but that does not mean that we have to forever tug our forelocks to every idea that emanates from Brussels, or Paris, or Berlin. Enlargement, too, is a good idea and is far preferable to deeper integration but that does not mean that the Treaty of Nice is the right way to go about it, or that the European Union is ready for enlargement."

A number of variables could make the pendulum swing towards the No camp. Although turn-out may be as low as 40%, there are concerns that the widespread confusion about what the treaty really means could tempt many into ticking the 'No' box as a protest gesture.

The political debate hasn't succeeded in illuminating the issues much. The Yes side says the treaty's purpose is to introduce sorely-needed changes in the EU's institutional set-up, so that the path towards eastward enlargement can be smoothed. It would be selfish, argues Ahern, to prevent the former communist countries of central and Eastern Europe from joining the Union.

The No side offers quite a different interpretation. "The Nice Treaty is not primarily about enlargement," said Green MEP Patricia McKenna. "It is about enhanced cooperation, the idea of allowing a minimum of eight member states to forge ahead and create a two-tier EU. Every member state used to be equal but some will now be more equal than others."

Arguments that Nice is separate to the enlargement process were bolstered by a booklet published by the Referendum Commission, a panel of 'wise men' appointed to produce material, outlining the arguments for and against the treaty. To the chagrin of the Yes side, the booklet omits any mention of the 'e' word.

Campaigners for a No vote have also seized on the perception that Ireland's influence in Brussels will dwindle once Nice is ratified because the state's automatic right to appoint a commissioner will be forfeited and the Republic's quota of MEPs will be reduced from 15 to 12. One Fine Gael Euro MP, John Cushnahan, believes this claim is misleading. "We'll still have twice the level of representation in the European Parliament to which we're entitled, given the size of our population. And with the reweighting of votes in the Council of Ministers, our voting strength will be three times what we're entitled to. That's not unfair."

He adds he has "no time whatsoever for any argument saying we should oppose the Nice Treaty because it will mean less funding for Ireland in the future. We've seen immense benefits from our EU membership and it shouldn't deny the same benefits to the countries of central and Eastern Europe."

An intriguing aspect of the campaign is that Sinn Féin, the party routinely described as the Irish Republican Army's political wing, has chosen to play an anti-war card. Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, the party's sole member of the Oireachtas - Ireland's national parliament - recently expressed his concern that the establishment of the 60,000-strong Rapid Reaction Force underlined the EU's growing militarisation. The result, he said, would be the erosion of Irish neutrality and the diversion of money that could be better used for public housing than defence spending.

As the fewer than three million Irish voters are alone among the EU's 370 million citizens in being consulted on the treaty, the referendum is being keenly observed. A large No vote could have a significant ripple effect, especially in the applicant states, where a rising tide of anti-enlargement feeling has been noted.

Significantly, leading politicians in Estonia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have all urged the Irish to approve the treaty. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has even visited Dublin to lend his support to the Yes effort.

Although an Irish Times opinion poll found that 52% plan to vote for the treaty, compared to 21% against (with 28% still undecided), it is expected that the eventual margin will be much closer. The 1998 referendum on the Amsterdam Treaty saw a 38% No vote, the highest in any of the country's polls on the 'European project', and nobody will be surprised if that is exceeded on 7 June.

Coincidentally, the referendum will take place just two days after EU finance ministers are due to conclude deliberations on a dossier seen as hugely sensitive in Dublin. Following the Commission's unprecedented censure of the last Irish budget in February, ministers will decide if they should insist that it be altered to comply with the Union's economic guidelines.

Any fresh evidence to suggest EU interference in Ireland's domestic affairs will almost certainly be exploited by the No side.

Feature on the campaign leading up to Ireland's referendum on the Treaty of Nice.

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