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In search of Europe: Ireland

The Celtic Tiger's confidence has taken a battering from the recession - and the crisis might draw the Republic of Ireland closer to the EU again, the BBC's Jonny Dymond reports.

JONNY DYMOND
BBC correspondent Jonny Dymond

I'm Jonny Dymond and I've said goodbye to the BBC Brussels bureau for the next few weeks. I'll be taking the temperature in nine EU member states before the European Parliament elections on 4-7 June. I'm going to ask voters what they think of the EU and what their priorities are. Join me on the trip!

There is something about Ireland today that makes you want to weep.

Just 12 months ago this was still a country in great shape. It had over the preceding decade escaped from the shadow of Britain. It had reversed centuries of emigration, each departure an indictment of a failing economy.

It had become a successful, self-confident country, sucking in investment and labour, sending out its best, not as economic refugees but as advertisements for a vibrant modern country that had - shock, horror - outpaced its neighbour and one-time master.

It had even delighted in derailing the EU's best-laid plans, rejecting the Lisbon Treaty by a healthy margin on a decent turnout.

Now, as they did almost a year ago in that treaty referendum, placards battle for voters' attention on lampposts across the land.

Walter Cullen/Waterford Crystal plant
Walter Cullen sees the Waterford Crystal tradition disappearing

But the economic bubble has burst with a vengeance; construction is at a standstill, house prices have slumped, unemployment is at 11.4% and rising very fast and once again citizens are looking abroad for work.

So if anyone is looking for any debate about anything other than the economy as European elections draw near, look elsewhere.

And the debate - such as it is - about the relationship with Europe is completely overshadowed by anguished discussion of the Lisbon Treaty.

Shattered crystal

Rachel, 37, a Dubliner strolling the streets of the south-eastern city of Waterford on a sunny evening, summed up much of the national mood.

"I voted 'No' in the last referendum on the treaty," she says, "because I wanted to give [the governing party] Fianna Fail a kick in the arse, and no-one explained it to me.

"But the world has fallen apart since then and I want to live in Ireland, not Iceland."

Two of three elderly ladies out for a walk voted "No" last time. In the next referendum, widely expected to come in October, they'll vote "Yes".

"The way things are, we have to," one says.

To see "the way things are" drive five minutes out of town. What was once a factory producing world-famous Waterford Crystal stands silent.

Race horse Brave Jonnie and owner
Brave Jonnie's owner has changed his mind about the EU treaty

The visitors' centre, which used to draw more than a quarter of a million tourists a year to the town, now has a pathetic trickle going in and out, a good number of them wondering what happened to the factory tour they were promised.

Walter Cullen worked in the factory until the mid-1980s, before becoming a trade union official. Like many on the left, he opposes the Lisbon Treaty - a complex document aimed at streamlining EU institutions. But Walter can see which way the wind is blowing.

"I think that the next referendum will be about frightening people into voting for the treaty, because [they'll be told] if they don't vote for the treaty things will get worse for Ireland."

Walter stresses that he is still opposed to the treaty. But when pushed, he accepts that the economic weather has turned hard against him.

Brave Jonnie

The truth is that the government probably won't have to break sweat to "frighten" people into voting for the treaty. The crashing economy has already put the fear of God into them.

In a bid to escape the gloom I drove to Clonmel races, north of Waterford. I went in search of my namesake Brave Jonnie, running in the 1845.

His owner, farmer Damian Cassidy, voted "No" last time. Next time will be different.

"We weren't prepared for [the treaty], and that's why I went for a 'No'. This time I'm told that if I don't vote 'Yes' Ireland will be left behind. So I'm changing my vote so that I will vote 'Yes'."

In June last year, just as the Irish government was preparing to announce the conditions under which it would put the treaty again to the people, I asked a government official why he thought they could get a "Yes" second time around.

Betting at Clonmel races
Clonmel races: Rain clouds match the gloomy economic conditions

"Because," he said, with cool cynicism, "by then we will have revealed the treaty's opponents for the crackpots that they are and the recession will have terrified everyone into voting 'Yes'."

And so every jump in unemployment, every step backwards the Irish economy takes, must gladden the hearts of those who would drive the treaty through. It's this strange take on democracy that makes you want to weep.

I put 10 euros on Brave Jonnie. The trainer assured me he was a winner.

He trailed in fifth, under heavy clouds that swiftly turned to rain.

I always make lousy bets - which is which why I normally avoid the bookies. But I'd put very good money on a "Yes" to the treaty, come the next referendum.

Jonny Dymond's route across Europe
4 May - France
8 May - Ireland
12 May - UK
16 May - Sweden
21 May - Latvia
25 May - Poland
29 May - Austria
2 June - Italy
5 June - Germany


Jonny's response to your comments:

First to the much commented-upon Mark in the Netherlands… yes, Ireland got a lot, and as I whizzed around the place on lovely smooth roads I pondered back to the time in the 1980s when much of the road network seemed to be a spray of gravel and a prayer. But give the Irish some credit; the workforce was and is young, well-educated, motivated and English-speaking. The country is well-located to bridge the US and the EU; the tax regime has lured in multinationals; and the centuries-old links with the diaspora worked wonders.

Dan in Dublin (and many others around Europe) criticises the Irish government for sending the Lisbon Treaty back for another go, which it is expected to do in October. I know this looks pretty shameful. But I was in Ireland at the time of the first referendum; there was a lot of talk then, from both "No" organisers and "No" voters about sending the treaty back to Brussels and trying to get a better deal. And the Nice Treaty (which also had two referendums in Ireland, and which was twitched second time around to accommodate Irish concerns) was specifically cited by some.

Now everyone will have their own opinions about the deal that Ireland gets, expected to be sorted out a summit in June or July in Brussels. But it seems a bit much to lay into the Irish government or the Eurocrats for asking the Irish people to think again on the treaty, when a fair number of people wanted a better treaty when they walked in and out of the polling booths.

Finally, Nick in Chester: it's really interesting what you say about the Celtic Tiger hunting for survival by itself, because a number people in Ireland mentioned exactly this to me - that things were not going to be so sweet for Ireland over the next few years as funding switched to the new central and eastern members. In fact, one or two suggested that Ireland, now it's taken the money, should flee the EU… It was very much a minority opinion, but the Tiger clearly has teeth!

Thanks for your time and thoughts. Next stop, the UK.


Here are some of your responses to Jonny's feature:

The last time Europe faced problems like this we ended up fighting the most destructive war ever, which some countries are still paying for. I think it's time to put down our meaningless national pride and give each other a big fat hug, and vote yes. That goes for the UK joining the Euro as well.
A Hewitt, Dover England

Ireland's banks did not engage in risky, sub-prime mortgages like those in the US. They engaged in reckless commercial lending to property developers. Both are two sides of the same coin.

Unfortunately for Ireland, they are not the magnet for talent and investment that the US is. Many non-Irish (myself included) have already left or are leaving shortly, as are thousands of Irish of all skill levels and ages who do not see a future here.

While it is true the economic slowdown is not Ireland's doing, its myopic government have brought it to the brink of collapse. Instead, had government finances been kept in check and the banking sector even moderately regulated, Ireland would instead be poised to capitalize on the eventual economic recovery (like, say, Canada is) instead of barely staying afloat.
Brendan, Dublin, Ireland

To Mark, Netherlands. Ireland's interpretation of the role Europe has played in the complete turnaround of a country that, 25 years ago, looked like the Netherlands of 100 years ago, may indeed be clouded to say the least.

They have had opportunity and huge investment and, in part, have turned the corner, with almost a half-decent road infrastructure and some production outlets other than agriculture.

Let us now see proportional European funding being redirected to our Eastern neighbours after years of them being left out in the cold. Ireland has had the lion's share for long enough. Let's see the Celtic Tiger hunt for its own survival.
Nick, Chester

Amazed your trip takes you direct from Poland to Austria. You miss 2 great opportunities...

a. 1 hour from Vienna, Bratislava in Slovakia - they adopted the Euro on January 1st, and are bursting with pride at the progress they're making.

b. 2 hours from Vienna, Budapest in Hungary - wondering where it all went wrong, and when they'll need a helping hand from the IMF (again).

You'd learn a lot more about the state, the future, of the EU from a comparison of these two countries than you ever will by visiting Austria (with apologies to Austria!).
Alan, Budapest, Hungary

Although I voted yes in the last referendum, I will not be voting in the next one even if it means it doesn't pass. The Irish people were asked in the last referendum to decide and we made our choice - FULL STOP!!

All I can say is thank you to Éamon de Valera and those who wrote the Bunreacht na hÉireann (Irish Constitution), who foresaw the potential abuse of democracy from our elected officials (ignoring the French referendum for example) that we have witnessed in Europe in the past 5 years. If it wasn't for this our politicians would be signing treaties that effectively change our countries' ability to pass laws and operate as a whole without the consent of the people.
Dan, Dublin

Ireland has always been very positive about being a member of the EU and has been particularly pro-Euro too.

The boom and the current recession have very little to do with the previous rejection and future expected acceptance of the Lisbon Treaty. Just because the Irish voted no to the Treaty before doesn't mean it was an anti-EU message. The reason why it was rejected is that it was too vague a Treaty and wasn't fully understood. Why vote yes to something when it hasn't been explained properly and has been written in opaque language so as to make it indecipherable? Although I voted 'yes' myself, I can understand why many didn't.

The current recession is not just a reflection of the general worldwide downturn, but also a result of an inept government who haven't planned for things well and who have simply taken their eye off the ball.

When Ireland votes 'yes' next time to Lisbon, it will make very little difference to Ireland's economic state and will just mostly serve to pander to the egos of the eurocrats in Brussels.
Conor, Dublin

I think it was sad that the Irish voted 'No' last time as it would have made things a lot better. A sad fact is that the recession is probably the best thing to happen to Ireland, as the country and its citizens were living in a bubble for the past 10 years. The cost of living went up for no proper reason and there was too much speculation. People were actually happier in the early 1990s before the boom.
Mark, Venice, Italy

I have to reply to Mark from the Netherlands. Fair enough we did get a lot of EU grants, but they didn't cause the boom. We joined the EU in 1973 and our Celtic Tiger boom started 20 years later, mainly due to attracting American companies with incentives such as low corporation tax.

I am sick of some of our EU partners claiming their handouts caused our boom. Listen, it worked both ways, Ireland has 25% of the EU's ocean shelf, and thus 25% of its fish stock, yet we are only allowed 3% of the entire EU quota, which means we have a right to only 1/8 of fish in our waters. Where is the other 88% going? That's right - to our neighbours in Britain, France and especially Spain, whose trawlers have plundered our waters for the last 30 years. Why do you think Norway won't join the EU? Because they fear the same thing with their fish stock. Shell to Sea, Dublin.
Paul, Dublin

I feel very sorry for Ireland at the moment. It is a shame that the pro-Lisbon elite seem to be intentionally capitalising on the country's economic woes to suit their own anti-democratic agenda.

I can't believe people don't seem to notice the audacity of putting it to a vote a second time, surely once was enough, the EU seem to love using this patronisingly coercive technique on the Irish. Remember Nice? All I can say is I hope the Irish show their characteristic resilience in the face of hardships and say no to Lisbon again.
Adam, Leeds, Great Britain

It is a myth that Ireland was ever distanced from the EU. Surveys have consistently shown high support for the EU among Irish people. It was the Lisbon Treaty that was rejected, not the EU.

Part of the unpopularity of the Lisbon Treaty was the perception that all the governments had carefully bypassed the democratic will of their populations by refusing to allow referenda on the issue. The Irish government was constitutionally obliged to put the Treaty to a referendum.

Therefore, in 100% of the countries where the Lisbon Treaty was voted on in direct democracy, it was rejected. I have little doubt that it would have been rejected in other EU countries too, had the people been given that option.

But none of this implies a dislike of the EU itself, only the Lisbon Treaty.
Shane, Mayo, Ireland

Ireland has been affected by the global recession and additionally by a badly managed home housing market. America lead the way with poor sub-prime and financial mistakes; so I don't feel particularly guilty.

We have a smart workforce and still lead the world in technology, alongside Silicon Valley and Bangalore.

The Celtic tigers is far from dead. It is merely distracted.
Fergal Breen, IFSC, Dublin, Ireland

I too weep for the death of democracy Jonny.

Even though polls have shown that the Germans, Austrians and Brits would vote NO,and the Dutch and French already have in essence....the Treaty is to be rammed down Europeans throats regardless.

The un-elected commission will then crow it was done with due `democratic process´..and they have the audacity to encourage us to vote in June !
Johanes, Berlin,Germany

It's a shame a recession had to happen to wake up the Irish voters but it seems like a little bit of payback. The great Irish economic boom grew from the roots of EU grants, structure and investments. Once they were all rich and prosperous they then turned and bit the hand that had fed them just when the EU needed to introduce badly needed reforms that would help intergrate other countries and give them the same chance to blossom as Ireland.
Mark, Netherlands

Worry not brave Irish people, whether you vote yes or no to the Lisbon treaty won't make any difference to Ireland's economical woes. The EU and in particular the Eurozone is in a very bad shape too. The so-called EU constitution can't help that. I even wonder if it can help anything.

I also voted NO in the French referendum but the new president Sarkozy passed it by force through Parliament, disregarding the democratic vote.
alain hernu, andresy france



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MEP Seats

  Votes MEPs
Party % +/- % Total +/-
EPP 33.4 -1.4 264 -18
Socialists 23.2 -4.1 183 -26
Liberal 11.0 +1.6 84 +5
Green 7.4 +1.3 50 +9
Left 5.3 -0.6 34 -2
UEN 3.4 +1.6 28 +2
Ind/Dem 2.7 -1.8 21 -15
No Group 13.6 +3.4 72 +3.4
0 of 27 countries declared.

UK Total MEP Seats

Party Votes MEPs
% +/- % Total +/-
CON 27.7 1.0 *26 1
UKIP 16.5 0.3 13 1
LAB 15.7 -6.9 13 -5
LD 13.7 -1.2 11 1
GRN 8.6 2.4 2 0
BNP 6.2 1.3 2 2
SNP 2.1 0.7 2 0
PC 0.8 -0.1 1 0
OTH 8.5 2.4 0 0
SF 1 0
DUP 1 0
72 of 72 seats declared. Vote share figures exclude Northern Ireland as it has a separate electoral system to the rest of the UK
* Includes UCUNF MEP elected in Northern Ireland
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