Glimmer of light in Lisbon tunnel

The Irish Times poll on a new Lisbon referendum is a close call, too close for comfort but heading in the right direction.

43 per cent now saying they would vote Yes, 39 per cent No and 18 per cent having no opinion.
When the “don’t knows” are excluded this gives the Yes side 52.5 per cent, with the No side on 47.5 per cent. It compares to the referendum result in June of 53.4 per cent No and 46.6 per cent Yes.

Expert economic opinion, if there is still such a thing these days, is clearly in favour of huddling up close to Europe in these tough times. Politically and economically Europe will seem like a rock of stability when everything is uncertain. European pressure on a small country like Ireland may not be entirely welcome but it’s clearly working, particularly after the full force of the financial crisis has broken.

Even in today’s overwhelmingly urban society, the support of farmers who only five months ago were among the Treaty’s strongest opponents is a striking sign of this swing of opinion. Timing will be vital and I assume a new referendum before the June Euro-elections remains unlikely. Also, confusing the issue with mounting general grievances against the government since the budget as Colman has done terribly complicates the politics. From the poll there are encouraging signs that the public can tell the difference. The over-elaborate scenario described by by the Centre of European Reform now seems less plausible.

“A Fine Gael-led coalition government would still have a mountain to climb to convince the Irish electorate to say yes to Lisbon. First the new government would have to find a way to make clear to voters that sticking with the Nice treaty means Ireland is about to lose its automatic right to be ‘represented’ on the European Commission. Second, it would have to give more power to the Oireachtas – the Irish Houses of Parliament – to decide how EU policy is decided at home. (One idea is to include a special ‘EU auditor’ post in the Irish constitution as a watchdog on European matters.) Third, the government would probably have to secure revamped promises on old bugbears in Ireland’s relationship with the EU such as abortion and defence, as well as new ones like tax harmonisation and, possibly, the Charter of Fundamental Rights.”

It so happens that a second Irish referendum before the UK general election in 2010 or even soon after it, would be a godsend particularly to the Tories. It would get them off the hook of a British referendum, which they’d love to happen but won’t yet admit it – always assuming of course that the Irish voted yes this time.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London