Ireland's Lisbon vote looms — again

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.

The Lisbon treaty was negotiated by member states and signed in the Portuguese capital on Dec. 13, 2007, by heads of EU member states' governments. It aims to clarify the role of the EU and increase the power of the European Parliament. To come into effect it must be ratified by all 27 EU members — but only Ireland is bound by its constitution to hold a referendum. The other EU member states have approved the treaty.

Government research established that, in the first referendum, four in every 10 voters gave “lack of information” as their main reason for rejecting the complex treaty, and it has spent much time and money in making the issues more coherent.

Some 62 percent of voters now say they will back Lisbon in the second referendum on Oct. 2, with only 23 percent opposing it, according to an opinion poll published this week in the Sunday Business Post. Another survey found that the almost nine out of 10 of 500 Irish employers believe a "yes" vote is important, as EU membership has been crucial to the success of the Irish business economy.  All Ireland’s major political parties and a number of well-organized civil society groups back the treaty, including “Ireland for Europe” which boasts the support of U2’s The Edge and other entertainment and sports personalities. Aware of the deep unpopularity of the government, their message is that the referendum is not about the Brian Cowen but about the future of Ireland.

The "no" campaign is backed by a loose coalition encompassing the far left, which claims that workers’ rights are endangered, and the conservative right, represented by Ganley, which objects to greater power being given to an overly-bureaucratic European Commission.

As the campaign heats up, Dublin lamp posts are once again festooned with political signs. The anti-Lisbon grassroots organization Coir (justice) has erected posters depicting a pink heart with slogans such as “The EU loves low wages.”

Whichever side wins, the turnout may be lower than last time. Unemployment is rising to 13 percent, and many Irish people have been voting with their feet and leaving to seek a new life abroad, as the country experiences emigration again for the first time in two decades.