|A change in economic fortunes has altered Ireland’s reaction to the EU [AFP]
Voting appears to have been brisk, at least in the capital.
Ordinarily, a question so bland as reform of the European Union might not be expected to excite much interest or debate.
But this being Ireland, there is no shortage of opinion, and these are economically straightened times.
What happens to the EU has a far more pressing bearing on Ireland than it did 16 months ago. That was when Ireland last voted on the Lisbon Treaty. The country then said “No”. But times have changed.
Sixteen months, ago Ireland was at the height of an economic boom. Now the so-called Celtic Tiger economy has turned to bust.
“We don’t want to be seen on the outisde of Europe and therefore if we don’t show them that we need their market our produce will be left on the sidelines”
Richard Gleeson, dairy farmer
Outside one polling station in a middle class suburb, I spoke to voter after voter exiting a polling station.
They appeared unanimous. All voted “Yes”, all expressed concerns for the future, theirs and their children’s.
“I think our country needs to get its act in order as well. And I just think that it’s important for our kids growing up to be part of Europe,” one woman told me.
These are uncertain times in Ireland.
Unemployment has doubled and is now the European Union’s second highest. The budget defecit is twice the EU average. Tax hikes and public-spending cuts are on their way.
Euro safety net
In its time of need, Ireland has benefitted from the help of the European Central Bank.
Large EU subsidies helped in building the economy in the boom times. Now many believe Ireland needs to look to the eurozone as its safety net.
One powerful group of No voters last June was farmers. They’ve changed their tune with the Irish Agricultural Federation pressing its members for a Yes.
Farmers aren’t alone in fearing the consequences in dire times of finding themselves alienated from Europe.
“We don’t want to be seen on the outisde of Europe and, therefore, if we don’t show them that we need their market, our produce will be left on the sidelines,” Richard Gleeson, a dairy farmer, said.
The Yes camp is also heavily promoted by big business, the government, and all but one political party.
“We are trying to protect our national sovereignty and our capacity to direct our own nation “
Dennis Hickey, Yes campaigner
Brian Cowen, Ireland’s prime minister, has staked much on his unequivocal support for a Yes vote.
The Yes campaign has played on the fear of voters that rejecting the Lisbon Treaty would be rejecting Europe – something Ireland cannot afford to do.
But there is also immense anger at play.
Many fault the government’s handling of the financial crisis, blaming it for presiding over the collapse. A No vote would seriously imperil the goverment’s chances of re-election.
Besides the protest vote, the No campaign insists a reformed EU under the Lisbon Treaty would swallow tiny Ireland, threatening its sovereignty in advancing its own interests in a new superstate.
“We are trying to protect our national sovereignty and our capacity to direct our own nation and to have control over our own laws and to preserve our own identity you know,” Michael O’Driscoll, a No campaigner, said.
But Dennis Hickey, a Yes campaigner, said: “We have to be working within this larger framework and, to do that, we have to be able to sit at the table in a credible position.
“This is Ireland’s position, these are our values, these are the values of Irish people as a sovereign people and we want these values heard and represented in the direction that Europe goes.”
The charter of reforms contained in the Lisbon Treaty aims to make the European Union more inclusive, effective and competitive as an entity in the modern world.
The treaty proposes a sitting EU president, to be elected by the union’s 27 member states, and centralised policy-making without the obstructive national veto currently wielded by each individual member.
With the treaty agreed by all EU members except Ireland so far, Brussels knows a second Irish No would sink the prospect of EU reform for a long time to come.
As policymakers hold their collective breath, Ireland’s three million eligible voters are deciding not just for themselves, but for 500 million Europeans as well.