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Last Hurdle for Lisbon Treaty: Irish 'No' Campaign Gains Momentum

By in Dublin

Europe is watching Ireland anxiously on the eve of the second referendum. And while the "yes" camp seemed to be in the lead for weeks, the aggressive campaign against the Lisbon Treaty now appears to be swaying undecided voters.

Niamh is 19 years old. She studies Design, wears green chucks, heavy mascara, and a nose ring. She could not care less about politics but she has just been approached by an old man on Grafton Street. "He was so nice," she says. "Beforehand, I actually wanted to vote 'no,' but maybe now I'll be voting 'yes.'"

She doesn't know him. "Is he famous?" she asks. The man is Eamon Gilmore, leader of the Irish Labour Party. He's trudging through Dublin in a last ditch attempt to prevent a second calamity in Europe. On Friday the Irish will be voting for the second time on the treaty that hopes to reform the European Union. This time around nothing is supposed to go wrong.

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Photo Gallery: On the Eve of the Second Vote
"It is very important that you vote 'yes' on Friday," Gilmore tells Niamh, while pressing his two palms together, as if in prayer. Niamh is somehow inspired. She has already forgotten what was said, but remembers it being said in earnest.

But then what about the "no" posters? "They say that wages will sink," she says. "And what about my right to vote?"

Perplexing and Polarizing

Niamh is not the only one confused. Yes, no, yes, no -- a tour through the streets of the capital is a perplexing and polarized affair. One poster depicts a girl with nervous green eyes: "Irish Democracy 1916-2009? Just say No." Another poster states that the "yes" vote will bring economic recovery. These posters are everywhere. They all either entice, promise or warn. Most importantly, they all contradict each other. What can you believe?

Should you believe that the minimum wage would fall to €1.84 should the Lisbon Treaty pass? Or that it would signal the end of the Irish democracy? The government claims these are lies, but who believes the government anyway? "It has to come from somewhere," says Niamh.

Judging by the latest polls from this weekend, 19 percent of the Irish voters are still undecided, with 48 percent will vote "yes," and 33 percent will vote "no." The final result could swing either way depending on if and how the undecided voters make up their minds. As a result, a fierce tug of war between political groups as ensued. All of the major parties in parliament are campaigning for a yes apart from Sinn Fein, the left- wing nationalist party that presents itself as a mouthpiece for the disenfranchised.

"It is closer than anticipated," says one of the Labour Party's chief strategists. Though the "yes" camp was comfortably in the majority for many weeks, it seems that their advantage is seeping away at the final hurdle. The "no" camp is gaining momentum, he concedes, saying that those who are still undecided will in all likelihood end up voting "no." If that happens then the majority for the "yes" camp will be lost.

'There Will Be No Lisbon Three'

The Irish Prime minister Brian Cowen of the conservative Fianna Fail party is holding his final press conference in a hotel room in Dublin. A large, yellow "yes" badge is pinned to his lapel. There are journalists from Italy, Belgium, Spain and England. The treaty has already been ratified in 26 countries. The Czech and Polish presidents may be dragging their heels but essentially it is up to Ireland to decide if the treaty comes into force in 2010.

When asked what Cowen would do if the vote goes badly, he responds: "There would be no Lisbon Three." He does his best to talk up Friday as the "all or nothing" D-Day. It concerns "the future of our country," he exclaims. Two thirds of Irish jobs depend on exports to other EU countries He compares Ireland's situation before and after joining the then European Community in 1973, reminding his audience of how indebted the former poorhouse is to Europe. He appeals to the voters to set aside day-to-day political disputes and to concentrate on the collective mission.

A speech laden with historical pathos is Cowen's only viable option. Heavy endorsement of the treaty could be disastrous given that he is Ireland's most despised politician. His management of the economic crisis, which has affected Ireland worse than any other EU country, is regarded as catastrophic.

Gary Keogh, a dockworker, marches through downtown Dublin with fellow critics of the government. They are protesting against the government's austerity plans which envisage deep cuts in public spending. The 28-year-old crane operator has worked in Dublin's port for 12 years. He and his co-workers are on strike for three months as they refuse to put up with the recent wage cuts. His British employer has found temporary replacements -- English and Scottish workers who are prepared to do the job for 20 percent lower wages. Keogh chides the government for deserting the Irish workers. Although he is still an undecided voter, he leans towards rejecting the treaty. It would be a form of revenge, as the Cowen government is likely to fall if Lisbon is rejected for a second time.

'I Don't See Any Reason to Change My Mind'

"Many people want to stick it to the government" says the 21-year-old Ross Jones, a shopkeeper of a souvenir store in downtown Dublin. He himself plans to vote "yes," and so do most of his friends. He voted "no" in the first referendum as he feared Irish taxes would have to increase to meet EU levels. However, he is now satisfied that the government has secured a guarantee on the issue from the European Council

This echoes the attitude of many who voted "no" last time. In fact Dublin secured a number of legally-binding commitments in Brussels on a range of issues that were deemed to have been decisive in last year's rejections, such as abortion and military neutrality. However, others still cannot extract themselves from traditional attitudes towards authority. "The Irish don't like to be told what to do" explains Paul McSweeney. The 66 year old is disgruntled with the EU. He sees this second referendum as an act of impertinence. He voted "no" last year and will again vote "no" on principle. "I don't see any reason to change my mind," he says. His friend, 67-year-old Tom Trehy, pipes in: 'I don't want a lunatic like Sarkozy to be making my decisions."

Most are aware that Europe is watching on. It is now up to three million people to decide whether in the near future 500 million people share the same president and foreign minister. The pressure is immense. Andrew Duff, a British MEP, warns that the rejection of this referendum would create the "mother of all constitutional stalemates."

Whether the Irish want it or not, Friday's outcome will be of great symbolic importance to Europe. On Wednesday evening, the main Irish news program reminded its viewers that 600 journalists from all the EU countries are accredited to cover the referendum, and that the European governments will be in much suspense as they await the results on Saturday.

Tapping Into Class Resentments

Yet the outcome is in no way certain. The "yes" camp may have picked itself up this time round, and has perhaps put in enough time and money to change public opinion. The political and business elite have driven massive promotional campaigns and huge multinationals such as Intel, Dell and Microsoft have helped by promising more jobs.

Nevertheless, this aggressive campaign may actually have the opposite effect. The "no" camp has managed to tap into class resentments against those "up there." It's not at all helpful, says Jones, the shop owner, when the Irish budget airline Ryanair accuses the "no" voters in a newspaper advertisement of being "losers."

Niamh still does not know which way she will go. It is the first time that she has had the right to vote, and she will make her decision on Friday. She thinks she is leaning towards a "no." If she votes "yes," who knows what will happen to Ireland? If she votes "no" then "everything will stay just as it is." She is not the only one who thinks this way.

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