Page last updated at 20:40 GMT, Wednesday, 16 April 2008 21:40 UK

Officials play down embarrassing e-mail

By Diarmaid Fleming
Dublin correspondent

Nicolas Sarkozy and Bertie Ahern
The alleged comments about Nicolas Sarkozy could prompt questions

Irish and British officials are playing down an alleged embarrassing e-mail from a diplomat suggesting the Irish government viewed French President Nicolas Sarkozy as "completely unpredictable".

It also allegedly wanted European Union announcements which could be unpopular in Ireland to be held over until after a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in June.

The e-mail - revealed by the Irish

Daily Mail and reproduced in The Irish Times - is alleged to come from a senior official at the British Embassy in Dublin, sent on 29 February to the Foreign Office in London.

The official wrote to London to summarise a briefing received by a senior Irish civil servant at the Department of Foreign Affairs about Irish government thinking over the forthcoming Lisbon Treaty referendum in the Republic.

In the e-mail, the British diplomat says the Irish official explained that the Irish government plans to fight the referendum in June by playing up the benefits of the European Union, without focussing on the detail of the treaty, which is "largely incomprehensible to the lay reader".

The Irish official is reported as saying that his government preferred a referendum in October, but had decided on an earlier date because of the risk of French President Nicolas Sarkozy making comments during the French presidency of the EU which might alienate Irish voters.

The memo says Dublin viewed Mr Sarkozy as "completely unpredictable", and that the earlier date was chosen because "the risk of unhelpful developments during the French Presidency - particularly related to EU defence - were just too great".

Irish military neutrality will be an issue in the referendum, as neutrality was once a historical cornerstone of state policy since independence from Britain.

The strict observance of the past has changed markedly under the governments led by Bertie Ahern since 1997, with US troops allowed to land in Shannon Airport en route to and from the Middle East, and Irish army participation in European Union battlegroups.

Opponents of the treaty say Irish neutrality will be threatened by its provisions.

The large and powerful farming lobby in Ireland was also allegedly referred to in the briefing, with fears that it might oppose the treaty over European Union agricultural concessions to the World Trade Organisation.

EU flag
The Irish government was concerned about the Lisbon Treaty

The Irish official is also alleged to have told the British diplomat that Dublin wanted a sensitive approach from Brussels before the referendum on anything which might damage support for a yes vote.

He is reported to have said that "other partners", including the European Commission, "were playing a helpful, low-profile role" and that commission vice-president Margot Wallstrom told Irish foreign affairs minister Dermot Ahern in Dublin in February that it was willing to "tone down or delay messages that might be unhelpful".

The Irish official also is quoted as saying that voters would listen to politicians rather than make up their own mind by studying the text of the treaty.

"Most people would not have time to study the text and would go with the politicians they trusted," according to the newspaper reports of the British diplomatic memo.

In a statement, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs said it had "no knowledge whatsoever of an e-mail referred to in a newspaper report and purporting to reflect government views on the reform treaty".

A British Embassy spokesman in Dublin told the BBC: "We do not comment on leaks".

Although he would not comment on a specific briefing suggested in the alleged e-mail, he said that briefings between Irish officials and British diplomats were routine and normal.

There was no-one available for comment at the French Embassy in Dublin.

Jovial

The alleged comments about Nicolas Sarkozy - who Taoiseach Bertie Ahern visited in October with both grappling together in jovial pose for photographers - are likely to prompt queries from Paris as to their veracity, and will exercise the skills of Irish diplomats to explain them.

Ireland is due to hold a referendum in June, which must be passed if the treaty, shaping the future structure of the European Union, is to become law across Europe.

Defeat would represent intense embarrassment for the Irish government and spark serious constitutional difficulties, both for Ireland and the European Union.

The Irish government might seek to reverse a defeat by holding another referendum as it did in 2002 when Irish voters rejected the Nice Treaty on European Union enlargement in 2001 in a low poll.

All major political parties in the Republic are advocating a yes vote, except Sinn Féin which is opposed to the Lisbon Treaty.

Opinion polls however suggest a large number of Irish voters are undecided or do not understand the detail of the treaty they are being asked to approve by their politicians, meaning an unpredictable campaign lies ahead.





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