Declarations confirm there is no threat to Irish neutrality - Ahern

 

The Nice Treaty posed no threat to neutrality, the Taoiseach told the National Forum on Europe in Dublin Castle yesterday. He said the declarations issued at the recent European summit in Seville confirmed that Ireland was not party to any mutual defence commitment.

Mr Ahern said a "positive context" could now be created for the Nice debate. If Ireland failed to ratify the treaty by the end of the year, there would be a crisis in the EU. "This is why we will be having another referendum."

From next week, Ireland would have in place one of the most advanced systems of parliamentary oversight of EU affairs to be found in any member-state. In the Convention on the Future of Europe, Ireland had been to the fore in advocating that citizens must be brought closer to the Union.

Speaking to reporters earlier, Mr Ahern said his remarks in Seville about the No campaigners had been "misinterpreted to an extraordinary degree" in some newspapers. He did not see why Ireland should give "a ferocious kick in the ankles" to the candidate countries. "It's within our power to tell them to go to hell or to support them."

The Fine Gael leader, Mr Enda Kenny, told the forum that two-thirds of the electorate did not vote in the last Nice referendum. It was critically important for the Government to allay fears and assuage concerns arising from the transposition of European directives into Irish law.

The Green MEP for Dublin, Ms Patricia McKenna, said her party was "extremely disappointed" in the Taoiseach's attitude to the result of the last Nice referendum. He had failed in his "constitutional duty" to uphold the right of the Irish people on this occasion.

The Seville declarations on neutrality were "basically meaningless". The Labour Party had proposed enshrining neutrality in the Constitution. It was ironic that the Government would not do this: why not, if there was no problem about neutrality?

The Irish people voted against a division of Europe into first- and second-class members. Despite denials that the EU had a "Plan B" if Nice was rejected again, she knew there were "Plans B, C, D and E".

Labour's deputy leader, Mr Brendan Howlin, said his party had supported the treaty on the last occasion. "We do, however, acknowledge that the Nice Treaty was rejected by the Irish people," he added. The same issue should not be presented in the same way a second time. "At least the core issues must be addressed."

One of these was neutrality: there was a perception that control over the involvement of Ireland in military actions was shifting from the Irish people.

Transparency in the operation of the EU was fundamental. Labour was happy that its European Union Bill on this issue had been restored to the Dáil order paper. "If these very significant issues are addressed, we believe there will be a fundamentally changed context," Mr Howlin said.

Mr Roger Cole of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA), said the real "whingers" were the political elite who lost the previous referendum. The term was usually applied to "someone who loses and can't handle it".

Former Fine Gael Taoiseach Mr John Bruton queried whether the national declaration issued by the Government at Seville meant Ireland would need United Nations consent to send its troops into another part of the EU.

The Minister of State for European Affairs, Mr Dick Roche, said "reasonable concerns" on neutrality had been addressed at Seville. "We will do ourselves no favours if we park ourselves in some sort of Eurosceptic cul-de-sac," he said.

The Sinn Féin TD, Mr Aengus Ó Snodaigh, speaking in Irish, said he was proud to called a "whinger" or a "pinko" or a "bleeding-heart liberal" if that was the level of debate from the Yes campaign.

Socialist Party TD Mr Joe Higgins said the "series of apocalyptic warnings" from the Taoiseach and others meant there was now a very real danger there would be no serious debate on issues in the treaty such as enhanced co-operation and the security dimension.

The ten candidate countries expected to be ready to join the EU in the first wave of accession are: the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Bulgaria and Romania are expected to join later.