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Irish Voters to Decide (Again) on Whether EU Should Admit 10 New Members - 2002-10-18

Voters in Ireland go to the polls Saturday in a crucial referendum on the European Union's plan to invite 10 new members to join the group, mostly from the former Communist bloc in the eastern half of the continent.

Commuters on Dublin's suburban rail network had a variety of opinions about the Nice Treaty on the eve of the election.

An informal VOA survey found that about half the people interviewed said they will vote for the treaty, about a quarter said they will vote no, and another quarter said they remain undecided.

Ireland is the only EU country where citizens vote on the Nice Treaty. The 14 other EU members have ratified the treaty through their parliaments.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern is staking his political prestige on a "yes" vote to approve the treaty, which would open the way for 10 new countries to join the European Union in 2004. Mr. Ahern was shocked last year when voters rejected the treaty in a referendum.

Analysts at the time said many people voted against it because they feared it would jeopardize Ireland's neutrality. To address this concern, the Irish will vote not just on the treaty but also on a constitutional amendment to enshrine Ireland's military neutrality in law.

But the whole idea of staging the election again has angered the "no" camp, an amalgamation of environmentalists, pacifists and nationalists who think Ireland will get a bad deal under the treaty.

Mairead Gerard says she's still mad that her "no" vote last year didn't count. "The main reason I'm voting no, is that I've already voted, and I don't think I should have to vote again," she objected. "They didn't take my vote into consideration the last time, so I'm not happy with that."

Angus McGovern is a Dublin school teacher who has spent time in eastern Europe. He strongly favors bringing the former Communist countries into the European Union. "For enlargement, I think we have to send out a clear message to those countries, that they are welcome," he said.

But a significant number of voters say they are still confused about the issues at stake, and they haven't made up their minds. Among them is a Dublin tennis coach, Peter Reid. "I'm still not sure though. It's very unclear," he said. "I know there's a lot of things on the TV. There's a lot of advertisements everywhere you go. There's that billboard there. But it's still not very clear to me."

Saturday's vote will be closely watched around Europe, including in Poland, the biggest of the 10 countries seeking admission to the EU. Polish political leaders say their countrymen might even give up drinking Ireland's world-famous Guinness beer if Irish voters again reject the treaty.