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Ireland's Lisbon vote looms — again

Declan Ganley is back in the fray and Irish voters worry about making enemies during a recession.

Mary Lou McDonald, vice president of Sinn Fein, answers a question during a debate on "Ireland and the Lisbon Treaty" hosted by Thomson Reuters in Dublin, Sept. 7, 2009. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

DUBLIN, Ireland — The controversial businessman who helped wreck the plans of the European establishment last year by leading a successful campaign against the Lisbon Treaty has returned to the fray.

With just three weeks to go before Ireland votes a second time on the European Union's reform treaty, Declan Ganley has emerged from self-imposed obscurity to rally the struggling anti-treaty campaign.

After his failed campaign for the European Parliament in June, Ganley said he would not get involved in a second referendum. His pan-European party, Libertas, also was routed. However, Ganley announced at a press conference in Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel on Sunday that he had changed his mind because of the “astonishing degree of misrepresentation” in the government’s pro-Lisbon campaign.

The 41-year-old political maverick’s re-entry into the fight comes at a time when opinion polls show support for a "yes" vote gaining ground. The polls got it wrong last time and Ganley is gambling that he can swing the pendulum back again.  His reappearance has certainly sent a shudder through the ranks of Irish government ministers, who do not hide their distaste for the articulate west-of-Ireland entrepreneur with his tailored suits and cufflinks. But much has changed since the country first rejected the treaty on June 13, 2008, intensely annoying Ireland’s European partners.

In the intervening period the global recession has had a catastrophic effect on the Irish economy, which has slipped from a growth rate of 2 percent to negative 4 percent. The International Monetary Fund has forecast a drop of more than 13 percent in output in the two years to 2010.

With the country now “bust,” to use the term of Colm McCarthy, the economist who heads a government body aimed at curbing public expenditure, people are by and large fearful of making new enemies. They are weighing the arguments against Lisbon against the prospect of isolation in Europe.

The Irish government insists that voters’ concerns about the treaty have been met following lengthy discussions with EU member states since the first referendum, and that Ireland will retain control of its taxes, neutrality and contentious issues such as abortion and workers rights. The country of 4.1 million will also keep a full-time seat in the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, rather than a rotating commissioner as envisaged at the time of the first referendum.

Prime Minister Brian Cowen told reporters that the "no" campaign spent a lot of money last time telling people there’s wouldn’t be an Irish commissioner and “the only way to have a commissioner now is to vote yes.”

Now Ganley accused the government of using “half-truths” in its campaign, which he said is “nauseating to listen to,” and he is now embarking on a fundraising effort.