Page last updated at 08:06 GMT, Monday, 9 June 2008 09:06 UK

What will Lisbon mean for Ireland?

By Shane Harrison
BBC Northern Ireland Dublin correspondent

European Union flag
People will be voting on whether they want stronger ties with Europe

Voters in Ireland go to the polls in a referendum on Thursday, 12 June, to pass their judgement on the Lisbon Treaty for an enlarged European Union.

But with a close result expected, there is little agreement between pro- and anti-campaigners about what Lisbon means for the country.

There is no shortage of multi-coloured posters on the poles and lamp-posts of Dublin urging passing pedestrians, motorists and cyclists to vote Yes or No in this week's referendum.

Some of the posters say the Lisbon Treaty is good for both Ireland and Europe, while others suggest the European Union is trying to bully the country and ask voters "not to surrender Irish freedom for which so many people died".

Campaign posters
Yes and No campaign posters are prominent in Dublin
But voters remain largely disinterested and confused by what both sides agree is a complex treaty.

Its main provisions include a smaller European Commission, with every country having to spend time without a commissioner; the removal of the national veto in more policy areas; a new President of the European Council and what some call a new foreign affairs supremo.

Lisbon will only come into effect once it has passed in all EU states, but Ireland is the only member having a referendum.

So it is of little surprise there are now nearly as many foreign journalists as domestic ones covering the campaign.

A No vote would have not just Irish but wider European consequences.

If the European Union works better Ireland will work better
Micheal Martin
Irish Foreign Minister

Ireland's coalition government argues for a Yes vote, saying the EU has been very good financially to Ireland for the last 35 years and that the country should remain at the heart of Europe.

The Irish Foreign Minister, Micheal Martin, says: "In essence, the Lisbon Treaty is making the European Union work more efficiently and better for the citizens of Europe. And, so, if the European Union works better Ireland will work better."

It is a difficult time for the government and the main opposition parties to sell a Yes vote.

The country's Celtic Tiger economy has slowed dramatically; property prices are falling rapidly; farmers are worried about what may emerge from the World Trade Organisation talks and there is growing public anxiety about the impact of all this on future unemployment.

Despite this, Europe-wide polls continue to show that the Irish remain, along with the people of Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium, the most enthusiastic about the European Union.

But the government and the main opposition parties, who are all urging a Yes vote, know that support for the EU doesn't necessarily mean support for Lisbon.

It undermines Irish military neutrality because it has a mutual defence clause
Mary Lou McDonald
Sinn Fein MEP

Sinn Fein, which is left of centre, is the only party in the Irish parliament opposed to the treaty. It is joined on the No side by right-wing businessmen, Irish nationalists, anti-war campaigners and anti-abortion activists.

Out on the streets of Dublin Sinn Fein MEP Mary Lou McDonald tells voters that Lisbon is a bad treaty that can be improved upon.

She says: "It allows for competition and privatisation in both health and education and undermines Irish military neutrality because it has a mutual defence clause."

Nonsense, reply the government and main opposition parties who argue Lisbon protects not only Ireland's neutrality but also public services and citizens' rights.

No wonder people are confused.

Opinion polls suggest a very close result with the No side, coming from way behind and surging marginally ahead.

The main reason people give for opposing Lisbon is that they do not understand the treaty.

The parties urging a Yes vote have little time to turn that around.

Brian Cowen
Losing the vote could signal the end of the honeymoon for Brian Cowen

The vote is also the first major test for the country's new Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, who succeeded Bertie Ahern last month.

He said winning Lisbon would be his priority and that he "will take full responsibility if voters reject the treaty".

A defeat would end his political honeymoon and he knows from Gordon Brown's experience across the Irish Sea that once that happens it can be very difficult to recover.

So, he is urging his centrist and populist Fianna Fail party organisation to get its vote out on Thursday and asking the opposition parties to do the same.

With polling day looming campaigners for both sides are canvassing support in shopping centres, markets and busy streets while politicians take every media opportunity available to sell their message.

They all know that the turnout could well decide which side wins.

The conventional wisdom is the higher the turnout the more likely a Yes victory.

The weather on Thursday may well decide whether Lisbon is passed.

Believe it or not, the No side is praying for rain. They believe that will keep the soft Yes vote at home.

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04 Jun 08 |  Europe
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