EU states ask Ireland to set referendum date


IRELAND’S EUROPEAN partners have asked the Government to set a date for the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty at next month’s EU leaders’ summit in Brussels.

The request was made at an EU foreign ministers meeting yesterday, where member states agreed to provide “robust” legal guarantees to try to persuade Irish voters to back the treaty.

“We understand how these guarantees are important for the Irish . . . should be robust enough to dispel the concerns of Irish citizens,” said Czech European affairs minister Stefan Fule, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU.

He said he thought the Government should announce the date of a second Lisbon referendum at the June council, provided the necessary guarantees were in place.

The Government wants its EU partners to sign up to texts providing legal guarantees that the Lisbon Treaty does not affect its sovereignty over tax, defence and ethical issues such as abortion and family life. It also wants them to agree to a declaration – which does not have the same legal standing as the guarantees – on the importance of workers’ rights.

Research conducted by the Government after the No vote in the first Lisbon referendum last June indicated these were the issues of primary concern to the Irish electorate. The texts of the guarantees are almost complete and will be finalised before the EU summit.

Minister of State for European Affairs Dick Roche, who represented the Government at the meeting in Brussels, said he received “amazingly positive statements supporting our efforts to conclude the guarantees” from fellow ministers.

He said the guarantees must be legally robust, but they would be Irish-specific and not require other states to re-ratify the treaty.

“Our guarantees are Irish-specific, and are not intended to cause problems for anyone else,” said Mr Roche, who added that bilateral meetings between Irish officials and representatives from the other 26 EU states to agree the final wording would begin in Brussels next week.

Despite the progress made on the guarantees at an EU level, there remains a significant hurdle at national level with the Green Party and Fianna Fáil still at odds over Irish membership of the European Defence Agency.

The agency helps EU states to co-operate on research and development of military equipment, to combine together to cut costs on military purchases, and to try to ensure EU forces use common equipment.

Green Party leader John Gormley wants Ireland to voluntarily withdraw from the agency to help persuade the public to back the Lisbon Treaty. However, Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minister for Defence Willie O’Dea are in favour of Ireland staying within the agency.

Mr Roche said significant progress had been made on the issue but there was still no final agreement between the parties.

He also denied the Green Party was preparing an exit strategy to leave the Government.

“I don’t believe that they are trying to launch the lifeboats . . . Frankly, the very last thing that Ireland needs now is to become embroiled for three or four months in a general election campaign. That would not serve the Irish people, or the Irish economy or the future of our country.”

Mr Roche also welcomed yesterday’s Irish Times opinion poll which showed that 52 per cent of the public now back the Lisbon Treaty. “I’ve always been of the view when we get the guarantees completed and we resolve all the concerns that the Irish people had that we would get a positive result . . . It’s a good poll and it’s very welcome.”