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Ireland braces for crunch vote on European treaty

Published on 02/10/2009

Dublin — Irish voters cast their ballots Friday in a closely-watched second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which EU leaders hope will reverse last year’s ‘no’ vote and clear Europe’s political deadlock.

Prime Minister Brian Cowen is leading the campaign in support of the reforming treaty, and warned this week that another rejection would damage Ireland’s recovery from deep recession.

Opinion poll results suggest his side will win this time. The latest survey on Sunday put support for the treaty at 55 percent, compared to 27 percent who said they were planning to vote against it.

European leaders are also anxiously awaiting the referendum results, hoping for an end to the constitutional deadlock the EU has been in ever since last June when Irish voters rejected the treaty by 53.4 percent.

Ireland is the only EU country constitutionally obliged to put the treaty to a referendum, and a ‘yes’ vote is required if the document — already ratified by 24 of the 27 member states — is to pass into law.

Dublin agreed to hold another poll after securing guarantees on key policy areas which it said were behind last year’s decision.

Specifically, its EU partners gave assurances on Catholic Ireland’s abortion ban, its military neutrality and its tax-setting right, while pledging that every EU state will continue to have a commissioner in Brussels.

Cowen said Wednesday that the referendum was "one of the most important decisions in our recent history" and vital to Ireland’s economic future.

"Will we move forward together with Europe or will we take an uncharted and more uncertain road?," he said.

"A Yes vote marks an essential step for recovery. Only with a Yes will we ensure investor confidence in Ireland, protect our influence in vital economic decisions and reform Europe so that it is more dynamic and effective."

This year Ireland’s GDP is set to shrink a record eight percent, while the jobless toll could exceed 15 percent, three times its June 2008 level.

The Yes camp likes to point out that, without the 120 billion euros (175 billion dollars) injected by the European Central Bank, Irish banks would probably have had to close.

However, there are concerns that some voters will use the referendum — backed by all the mainstream parties bar the republican Sinn Fein — to kick Cowen’s unpopular government.

Declan Ganley, the millionaire businessman who spearheaded the successful "no" campaign last year, has argued that the "only job that the Lisbon Treaty will save is Brian Cowen’s".

He warned the treaty imposes a "Brussels democracy", putting more power into the hands of unelected leaders who are unaccountable to citizens.

Voting is already underway in five Atlantic Ocean islands, which start early in case weather delays the transportation of the ballot boxes to the mainland, while eight islands off western County Mayo and County Galway vote Thursday.