Sarkozy 'forum' with No side scrapped

 

PLANS FOR French president Nicolas Sarkozy to meet in public with anti-Lisbon Treaty campaigners have been scrapped, following last-minute nervousness by the French side.

The French leader will arrive in Dublin on Monday for a five-hour visit which has attracted considerable attention, following his private remarks on Tuesday when he told French MPs that Ireland would have to vote again.

Irish and French officials have met over the last two days to agree an itinerary for the short visit, which is the subject of considerable Irish concern that Mr Sarkozy could make a difficult situation even worse.

Now, Mr Sarkozy will arrive at Dublin Airport at 1pm and be taken to Government Buildings for a meeting, and lunch with Taoiseach Brian Cowen, followed by a brief press conference.

Then, he will be taken to the French embassy for a reception with "Irish personalties". A full list of the attendance was not available last night. It is expected to include representatives of the Yes and No sides.

Mr Sarkozy will be accompanied by the French minister for foreign affairs, Bernard Kouchner, who caused controversy in the days before the referendum when he said Irish voters would be the first to suffer if the treaty was rejected.

Last month, the French president made it clear that he wanted "to listen" to the views of the No side during his visit, but French enthusiasm for a open-type forum has waned in recent days.

The Government had been strongly opposed to the idea of a National Forum on Europe-type meeting from the beginning, believing it would grant the No side unreasonable prominence.

Meanwhile, the Government is still irritated by Mr Sarkozy's remarks at a private meeting with deputies from the UMP party on Tuesday, when he said that Ireland would have to vote again.

However, Taoiseach Brian Cowen and others have emphasised that other EU leaders cannot be prevented from voicing their opinions on an issue that concerns them as well.

In addition, there is a realisation that Mr Sarkozy's comments this week are unlikely to be his last on the matter, and that they will have to cope with further volleys from the French president during the rest of his EU presidency.

Questioned yesterday about Mr Sarkozy's reported comments on a second Irish referendum, Minister for the Environment John Gormley said: "We do not know precisely the context in which those comments were made. Of course, others are entitled to have their own opinions.

"We are a sovereign people and we have to come to our own conclusions in our own way. And certainly any speculation about a second referendum is entirely premature.

"This idea of a second referendum is not on the table at this stage. We are looking at a series of options. Any speculation to the contrary is entirely inappropriate."

Anti-Lisbon group Cóir yesterday called on Mr Sarkozy to withdraw his "imperious and insulting" declaration that Ireland would have to vote again. Cóir spokesman Richard Greene said: "It is simply deplorable that any foreign politician would come to a sovereign nation and attempt to tell voters what to do."