No to Nice group criticises 'reckless' freedom to work offer

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The Government was "reckless and irresponsible" to offer eastern European workers the freedom to work in Ireland immediately after European Union enlargement, the No to Nice Campaign has claimed.

Promising to make immigration an issue in the referendum, the campaign's spokesman, Mr Justin Barrett, said: "If it is not to the fore in people's minds now, it will be by the end."

Ireland, Sweden and Denmark have agreed that such workers can travel in search of jobs post-enlargement, though each believe the numbers doing so will be small.Restrictions will be imposed if that is not the case.

The rest, most particularly Germany and Austria, have each insisted that they will impose strict two-year bans, which can be extended to seven years if they wish.

Last week, ICTU general secretary Mr David Beggs said central and eastern European workers wanted to work in Germany and Austria, and not in Ireland.

Alleging there will be "a flood" of workers, Mr Barrett said: "If you are in the Czech Republic, you might prefer to go to Germany. But if Germany won't let you in, you'll go to Ireland." The Irish Business and Employers' Confederation is prepared to use such workers as "a battering ram" to cut the pay of Irish workers, he claimed.

"The Government should have done what most other countries have done. It was a common EU position. If they want to change it in future, they will end up insulting these countries," said Mr Barrett. He rejected claims that the No to Nice Campaign was xenophobic.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, made the offer in a letter to his counterparts in the candidate countries.

"I don't know why he did that. The only thing that is clear to me is that it was part of an abject apology for the democratically expressed wishes of the Irish people. It was some sort of a humble apology," said Mr Barrett.

The immigration issue was first raised by the National Platform's Mr Anthony Coughlan, though a fellow No campaigner, the Green Party leader, Mr Trevor Sargent, dissociated himself from the sentiments.

Reacting to Mr Barrett's vow to make immigration an issue, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Mr Dick Roche, said it was "sinister, but not surprising, nor new".

"As far back as 1971, No campaigners were using the same argument in the original referendum on EU membership.

"At that time, they said Germany, Dutch and British skilled workers would take Irish jobs.

"The same old myths appeared again at the time of the Single European Act. In 1992, a Green Party TD, Mr Roger Garland, said Maastricht would increase unemployment and emigration," said Mr Roche. "We were told that we would lose money, power and influence if we ratified the Amsterdam Treaty. None of this happened," Mr Roche told The Irish Times.

The No to Nice Campaign is largely comprised of members of the Mother and Child Campaign, who battled against the abortion and divorce referendums.

Last night, Mr Barrett said they had up to 1,500 volunteers working on the last Nice campaign. "I would expect with public meetings that that number will grow this time," he added.

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