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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Second referendum in Ireland - would a general election help the 'Yes' side?

An interesting piece from Hugo Brady at the Centre for European Reform, a close observer of Irish politics. He believes that an election in Ireland next year could help clear the decks for a second referendum.

Noting that a general election was held between the first Nice Treaty vote and the second (successful) referendum on the Treaty, he argues that:

"Though the Nice treaty issue was not prominent in the campaign, the change of government wiped the political slate clean and provided some legitimacy for the previous decision to be re-visited.

The chances of this happening in the case of the Lisbon treaty have suddenly increased. If the present government falls, there will be three options. There may be a general election. Or Fianna Fáil may form a new coalition with new partners. More probable is the formation of an alternative government, led by the largest opposition party, Fine Gael, backed up by the Irish Labour party and others."

He argues that a series of guarantees on abortion, neutrality, tax etc should be consolidated into a single protocol on ‘Ireland in Europe’ to make them more visible to the public. Being able to focus attention on a single document, rather than the unintelligible mass of legalese of the Lisbon Treaty, would certainly make life easier for the Irish government in a re-vote.

Although Brady thinks that other EU member states would be reluctant to make concessions on letting Ireland keep its Commissioner, we're less sure. There would probably be another fake EU row, allowing the Irish government to return home from negotiations claiming 'victory' against apparently staunch opposition from the large member states. This would certainly strengthen their case in any referendum.

Such a scenario could align neatly with the plan (already mooted in Dublin) that a 'legal solution' could be used to the push most of the Treaty through parliament, with a 'limited referendum' on those parts of the Treaty that do require a popular vote under the Irish case law (possibly just the Charter of Fundamental Rights, foreign policy and defence). Again, this would make it easier for the Irish Government to focus its campaign on the newly 'won' protocol on 'Ireland in Europe', which could deal with many of these issues.

But winning a second referendum would still be an uphill battle, heavy with risk even for a newly elected government in Dublin. As research conducted for the Irish government notes:

“the general consensus at the time, was that if presented unchanged it could result in an even more negative result. No voters in particular often expressed offence at the idea that their decision would not be respected.”

The Irish government will therefore be keen to present the Treaty as new and the changes (whether material or presentational) as hard won - a change of government, followed by negotiations in the EU and an easy to read protocol could help achieve this.

Still, as we've argued before, the biggest problem for them is that the Irish people have been watching politicians scheming in public ever since the no vote, and are well aware that a con is underway. The shape which this con will take is gradually becoming clearer.

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