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Irish Vote on Nice Treaty Saturday - 2002-10-17


Irish voters go to the polls Saturday to decide the fate of a treaty that could clear the path for 10 countries, with 75 million citizens, to join the European Union. Most of the would-be entrants were formerly in the Communist bloc of Central and Eastern Europe. Saturday's vote will have a big impact on the continent.

At issue is the Nice Treaty, which would set the rules for expanding the European Union eastward and southward.

The treaty has been ratified in all 15 European Union countries, except Ireland. The Irish actually voted "no" to the Nice Treaty in a referendum last year, but the government has decided to present the issue to the voters again.

Many who voted no last year complain that the treaty could eventually lead to Ireland being dragged against its will into a European military alliance.

So this time the government has added a clause to the referendum, so that those who vote for the treaty will also be voting in favor of a constitutional amendment to preserve Ireland's neutrality.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern was badly stung by last year's vote, and he has made passage this time a keystone issue for his government.

"I hope that the Irish people will support this. I hope they see the importance to it," he said. "It is important to us nationally. It is important to our present economic position. To the role that we hold in Europe. To the significant part that we play in Europe. And very much it is important to the applicant countries who want to join in the future."

Pat Cox is an Irishman who now serves as president of the European Parliament. He says Irish voters can "remove the last brick from the Berlin Wall" by letting the former Communist states into the European Union."

"I am asking Irish people to do two things," he said. "One, to recognize their own self-interest and the country's self-interest in being a premier division player in the European Union. And not allowing the virus of skepticism to become a dominant strain in Ireland's Euro relations."

Among the skeptics is Gerry Adams, leader of the Sinn Fein party, which operates in both the Irish republic and in Northern Ireland. Mr. Adams says the anti-Nice Treaty coalition does not object to EU expansion, but fears the treaty will open the door to German and French domination over the alliance.

"You could summarize Sinn Fein's attitude as that we are good Europeans, but that we want to see a European Union which values all of the states, which prevents any two-tier system, and which involves citizens right across the European Union," he said.

Pat Kenny leads a group called Equal in Europe, which is campaigning against the treaty. He rejects arguments by the Irish government that if voters defeat the Nice Treaty, Ireland will be viewed badly by the rest of Europe.

"If democracy means anything, it means the right to say no," he said. "If one wants to put forward that proposition, then one would have to say that the European Union is an undemocratic institution, because if Ireland does not have the right to say no, then democracy means absolutely nothing."

Latest opinion polls show about 40 percent of respondents saying they will vote for the treaty, about one-third say they will vote no, and one in five voters say they have still not made up their minds.