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Last Updated: Friday, 29 October, 2004, 10:21 GMT 11:21 UK
Irish Yes vote not a done deal

By James Helm
BBC correspondent in Dublin

Back in the early summer, Bertie Ahern's Irish government jet spent weeks in a bewildering series of diplomatic trips around Europe.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern was key to the deal on the EU Constitution

The Irish prime minister criss-crossed the European Union, attempting to persuade, nudge, cajole and encourage his fellow leaders towards his goal. That goal, during Ireland's six-month EU presidency, was to achieve a deal on the EU Constitution.

Some suggested that Mr Ahern had been handed a poisoned chalice by the Italians, who had held the presidency for the previous six months. Talks on an agreement had collapsed, leaving the Irish to pick up the pieces.

But Mr Ahern, a veteran of years of complex, drawn-out European negotiations, stuck to his task, clocking up the air miles on his tour of European capitals, trying to smoothe out differences.

Irish legacy

Eventually, Mr Ahern's efforts paid off. A deal on the proposed EU constitution was reached.

Lavish praise was heaped on his shoulders, and on Irish diplomacy, for gaining agreement - whatever the lingering doubts about how many nations would eventually approve the constitution.

The question now is whether Ireland, having been linked so closely to the document's development and having watched its leading politicians labour over it, will vote for it. Mr Ahern, whose Fianna Fail party forms a governing coalition with the Progressive Democrats, naturally hopes so.

QUICK GUIDE

The referendum in Ireland is likely to be in the latter half of next year, or later still.

A Yes campaign to approve the constitution will have considerable political muscle: Ireland's largest opposition party, Fine Gael, will campaign for the constitution, and the Labour Party is likely to do the same.

Ireland is known as an enthusiastic EU member. A poll earlier this year suggested that more than 70% of Irish respondents believed the EU was a "good thing".

Ireland, its EU neighbours would point out, has done well out of the EU. At the same time, the Irish believe Ireland has also done well for the EU - as Mr Ahern's efforts demonstrate.

So the expectation would be for the constitution to be approved in a referendum.

Opposition

However, it would be wrong to assume a walkover. Mr Ahern got a nasty jolt when the Nice Treaty was rejected by Irish voters in 2001.

It was only approved when, controversially, he asked the Irish people to take a second look at it. The main political parties leant their lesson and campaigned hard.

Even then, in 2002, nearly 40% of voters opposed the Treaty.

Voting on the new EU constitution
The constitution faces referendums across EU member states

Unlike in the United Kingdom, there is no strong, widespread anti-EU sentiment in Ireland. However, there are people and parties who question the EU's direction, and who would campaign vociferously against the constitution.

Some opponents worry that Ireland's military neutrality may be in jeopardy if the EU plans a common foreign or defence policy in future.

One political party which will actively campaign against the new constitution is Sinn Fein. Its spokesperson on international affairs, Aengus O'Snodaigh, said the main concern was that the constitution would further erode Ireland's sovereignty in a range of areas.

He is confident that opponents will be able to challenge the government, and the other parties, on the issue.

For the moment, the issue is not at the forefront of daily politics, and it is hardly a bone of contention in Dublin's bars. But those who support the EU constitution know they will have a fight on their hands, whenever the referendum takes place.

For all Mr Ahern's personal efforts, and Ireland's traditional enthusiasm for the EU, the government will not take the result for granted.




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