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Friday, 27 September, 2002, 09:28 GMT 10:28 UK
Ireland preparing for Nice poll
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (left) and European Commission President Romano Prodi
Ahern: Passing Nice referendum is government "priority"

The Republic of Ireland will vote again next month on the Nice Treaty on the future of the European Union.

Last year, voters rejected the treaty, which proposes changes to the way the EU makes decisions before former communist countries in eastern and central Europe join.

Shortly after he was returned as Irish prime minister in this year's general election, Bertie Ahern said passing the Nice referendum would be the priority of his incoming coalition government.

Last year's rejection was highly embarrassing for politicians in Dublin who pride themselves on being "good Europeans" and whose country has done very well financially out of Europe.

They did not like the rumblings from central Europe that "handouts" from Brussels had helped make Ireland rich but now the "selfish" Irish had voted to deny the same opportunities to poorer countries in other parts of the continent.

The Irish Government and "No" campaigners protested that this was not the case and that the treaty, which less than 35% of the people voted on, was rejected for a number of reasons.

There were concerns that the proposed Rapid Reaction Force was a threat to Irish neutrality.


People are again complaining that they do not understand the treaty and many say they will not vote

People also objected to the possible loss of an Irish commissioner and they did not like the idea that the national veto was being removed from more decision-making areas.

The "No" side complained that Nice was establishing a two-speed Europe because any group of eight states can push ahead with further integration, although other countries can join later.

Mr Ahern's Fianna Fail and Progressive Democrats coalition government believed they could persuade many of the 54% who rejected the treaty last year to change sides in the 19 October referendum, if they addressed the neutrality issue.

So at Seville this year, EU leaders agreed a declaration confirming that traditional Irish military neutrality was not affected by Nice nor was Ireland obliged to sign up to a mutual defence pact.

The declaration was welcomed by the main opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, who are again urging a "Yes" vote.

'Defining moment'

But it was rejected as meaningless by the "No" side that includes Greens, Sinn Fein, Catholic anti-abortion campaigners and anti-immigrant groups.

Little, it seems, has changed since last year. Most of the arguments remain the same.

People are again complaining that they do not understand the treaty and many say they will not vote.

But more worrying for Mr Ahern, is the fear that people will vote against Nice, not because they oppose either the treaty or enlargement, but because they want to punish his government.

Many believe he bought the May election promising that the good times would continue only to propose massive cutbacks in government spending once he was returned to office.

He knows that his credibility and authority, at home and abroad, depend on a "Yes" vote this time round.

And while enlargement can continue without Nice, ratification of the treaty in Ireland, the only EU country yet to do so, makes the task much easier.

With so much at stake, not for nothing is it being said in Dublin that this is a defining moment for Ireland and its relationship with Europe.

See also:

17 Jun 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
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08 Jun 01 | Europe
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