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Ireland: Icons on the campaign trail for Lisbon Treaty

It's no laughing matter, says Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who is campaigning for Irish voters to approve the EU Lisbon Treaty.
REUTERS/Charles Platiau
It’s no laughing matter, says Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who is campaigning for Irish voters to approve the EU Lisbon Treaty.

DUBLIN — The government in Ireland is so unpopular that the electors would likely reject any referendum proposal it makes just to register a protest. That is why poets, rock stars and sports personalities have taken upon themselves the role of persuading people to vote in favor of the Lisbon Treaty in a second referendum on Oct. 2.

Since a majority voted no on the European Union reform package last year, Ireland has been experiencing a version of buyer’s remorse. There is deep unease across all sections of society at the prospect of Ireland becoming isolated if it rejects the treaty twice, which would stop it from being implemented despite ratification by all 26 other members of the EU.

Most people are of the view that only EU membership saved Ireland in the last year from the type of economic collapse suffered by Iceland, which, tellingly, is now seeking European Union membership. A second no vote would cast doubt on Ireland’s commitment to Europe and almost certainly infuriate its economic and trading partners on the continent. That is why a non-party group called Ireland for Europe has taken the initiative to campaign for a yes vote.

The group features national icons including poet Seamus Heaney, probably the country’s most popular figure, Edge from the band U2, filmmaker Jim Sheridan and Republic of Ireland soccer captain Robbie Keane. On Ireland for Europe’s website, Heaney is seen on a video clip reciting from Beacons at Bealtaine, a poem he wrote to mark the occasion five years ago when the European Union welcomed 10 new countries.

“There are many reasons for ratifying the Lisbon treaty, reasons to do with our political and economic well-being,” commented the Nobel laureate, “but the poem speaks mainly for our honor and ­identity as Europeans.”

Ireland is one of the few countries in the world where poets can influence national debate, and Heaney’s intervention has brought discourse to an elevated level in the “land of saints and scholars.”

Another independent pro-Europe lobbying group called We Belong, headed by popular figures such as Dublin Gaelic football manager Pat Gilroy and Eurovision Song Contest winner Eimear Quinn, was launched on July 27 with the slogan “Lisbon: We belong, you decide” (echoing the mantra of Fox News: “We report, you decide”).

On the same day a survey by the business group Ibec showed that 84 percent of Irish chief executives believe rejection of Lisbon in 2008 damaged Ireland’s reputation. Ibec spokesman Brendan Butler said, “When we voted on the treaty in June last year 100 people a day were losing their jobs, now almost 600 jobs are being lost each day.” Only by removing the uncertainty would Ireland remain “an attractive location for foreign investment.”

All major Irish political parties support the Lisbon Treaty, including the Green Party, the junior partner in government, which was neutral last time. The government plans to send a postcard to every household explaining the improvements in the treaty since the last referendum. It will explain that Ireland has negotiated a legally binding series of guarantees with EU leaders to meet the objections of those who voted no.

Under the guarantees, Ireland will have a representative on the European Commission at all times, it will retain control of its taxes, its traditional military neutrality will be respected and it will decide on ethical issues such as abortion and workers’ rights.

The no camp has been weakened by the defeat of its de facto leader, wealthy businessman Declan Ganley, in June’s European elections. The only significant opposition party to oppose the treaty is Sinn Fein, which holds four of the 165 seats in the Irish parliament. It argues that the accord “provides no meaningful tools for protecting workers wages and conditions, rather it promotes an economic policy that facilitates companies undercutting workers’ wages and conditions in a race to the bottom.”

But this time a majority of Irish voters is expected to vote yes for the treaty, which aims to reform EU institutions and tackle contemporary challenges such as the impact of globalization, climate change and economic downturns.

The Czech Senate finally ratified Lisbon in May, leaving this Irish vote as its final hurdle.

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