Polls have opened in Ireland at 7am local time this morning for a crucial vote on the EU Lisbon Treaty. New Taoiseach Brian Cowen is leading a desperate campaign to get out the “yes” vote as opinion polls show the result could go either way. All EU countries are required to ratify the treaty which was signed in Lisbon in December last year and Ireland is the only one of the 27 member states which is allowing its citizens to vote on the matter. The referendum is needed because of a 1987 Supreme Court ruling that any major amendment to an EU treaty requires an amendment to the Irish constitution. With the other 26 parliaments likely to rubberstamp the treaty, Ireland’s three million people will be the defacto decision-makers for the whole of Europe.
Because of this proxy vote factor, the Irish poll has attracted Euro-sceptics from across the continent to campaign for a “no” vote. They have been joined by a motley coalition of strange bedfellows opposed to the treaty. The Times calls them a “bizarre ragbag opposition of maverick businessmen, right wing Roman Catholics, socialists, communists, pacifists and anarchists.” They include minor political parties Sinn Fein and the Socialists; UNITE, the Irish arm of Britain’s biggest trade union and Libertas, a privately funded group set up to fight the treaty.
Libertas claims to be a pro European movement “dedicated to campaigning for greater democratic accountability and transparency in the institutions of the EU”. Chairman Declan Ganley appealed yesterday to Irish people to reject the Lisbon Treaty saying that a "no" vote would "send our leaders back to the drawing board". Ganley said the “yes” campaigners (which include the three main political parties, and most of Ireland’s business and media leaders) have given no good reasons to support the Treaty. “I hope, and I firmly believe,” he said, “that the Irish people will vote "No" tomorrow, and that the work can immediately begin on constructing a better vision of Europe for all its 490 million citizens".
Ganley makes a good point about the “yes” campaign. The Lisbon Treaty is a dense 230 page document which few people in Ireland or elsewhere have read or understood. Essentially it amends the two main existing treaties which govern the EU in order to make the governing of an expanded EU easier. These are the Treaty Establishing the European Community (more commonly known as the EC Treaty); and the Treaty on European Union (known as the Maastricht Treaty). The key changes involve bureaucratic matters such as the appointment of the president of the European Council, a smaller European Commission, a redistribution of voting rights, new justice powers and the removal of key national vetoes.
The Irish referendum question is asking citizens whether they want to change the nation’s constitution to: a) allow Ireland to ratify the Treaty of Lisbon; b) allow Ireland to agree to certain decisions in the area of Freedom, Security and Justice in future with the approval of the Irish parliament; c) allow Ireland to agree at the European Council to certain changes in the EU treaties which might require further referenda or parliamentary approval and d) continue the present arrangements for Ireland’s military neutrality.
If the “no” vote wins, it will be the second time this decade Ireland has scuppered an EU treaty. In 2001 Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Nice (pdf) which prepared the ground for EU enlargement. A second vote was required two years later to pass the treaty including a new clause clarifying Irish neutrality. Many voters are just as concerned and bewildered this time about being railroaded into agreeing with something they don’t understand.
A rejection would mark an embarrassing setback for new Irish leader Brian Cowen. Cowen took over the top job after the surprise resignation of long-term Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in April. Since then Cowen has focussed his attentions on convincing the electorate to support the treaty. Cowen is known for his blunt speaking which has earned him the less than flattering nickname “Biffo” (Big Ignorant Fucker From Offaly). A defeat for the referendum would represent a personal defeat for Biffo and a serious blow to his authority as he tries to steer Ireland through some tough economic times ahead. Cowen and the rest of Europe will have fingers crossed as they watch the counting of the vote which takes place tomorrow.