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The Irish seek a way back into Europe

The European election campaign focuses on a new Lisbon Treaty referendum.

DUBLIN — Enda Kenny, the leader of Fine Gael, Ireland’s main opposition party, turned up at St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin at lunchtime recently to promote one of his party’s candidates in the June 5 European elections.

Such is the indifference to the European election campaign among Irish voters that not a single passerby stopped to listen while Kenny and his candidate, Gay Mitchell, addressed four reporters huddled beneath a plane tree.

His voice almost inaudible against the roar of traffic passing between us and the Shelbourne Hotel, Kenny warned, “We really need to pull our socks up and realize Europe is good for us.”

Kenny was referring not to the European elections but to Ireland’s plan for a second referendum in the autumn on the Lisbon Treaty, a document designed to improve the workings of the European Union. It is the subtext of the European election campaign in Ireland.

Eleven months ago the Irish electorate defied the political establishment and rejected the treaty, meaning that it could not come into force, as it requires ratification by all 27 member states. Voters cited numerous objections, such as the loss of an automatic Irish representative on the European Commission and (erroneously) that the treaty would legalize abortion. A second referendum, likely to be held in October, might produce a different result.

The collapse of the Irish economy has brought about a shift in public opinion, with polls now showing a majority in favor of a "yes" vote. Once popular in Europe, the Irish now find themselves something of a pariah in Brussels. European Commission president Hans-Gert Pottering warned in May that a second "no" vote would damage Europe and isolate Ireland.

Though on the defensive, eurosceptics in Ireland will fight to defeat the treaty again, and are using the EU election campaign to make their case. The euroskeptics are led by Libertas, a right-leaning organization formed in Ireland last year by wealthy entrepreneur Declan Ganley. 

Libertas helped turn the tide against Lisbon and has since grown into a European-wide party running 300 candidates in 24 EU states on a platform of greater openness and democracy. It also wants to keep Turkey out of the EU.

Opinion polls show Libertas with just 2 percent support in Ireland, but with his personal appeal to conservative Catholics, Ganley could win a seat in the European parliament in North-West, one of the four Irish constituencies which will return three members each to the European Parliament. Ganley is confident enough to promise to quit as leader of Libertas if he fails.

However, in a sign of the new pro-Europe mood in Ireland, the former executive director of Libertas, Naoise Nunn, has defected, declaring that both sides were guilty of “scare-mongering and misinformation” during the first referendum. Nunn said voters should now support Lisbon as circumstances have changed “internationally, economically, financially and domestically.”