Irish lean toward EU as D-Day on austerity looms

By David McKittrick

The opinion of Niall Daly, who runs the Chocolate Shop in Cork's English Market, sums up why Ireland looks set to vote for the new European Union fiscal treaty in its referendum today.

"I'm leaning towards voting Yes, but definitely with a heavy heart," he said. "The No campaign haven't convinced me that we'll have access to money at a reasonable rate should a second bailout be necessary."

Ireland is the only nation to hold a referendum on the treaty, which was drawn up in March in response to the eurozone debt crisis.

If Ireland votes Yes to the fiscal pact, it would have to abide by strict new budget rules, allowing Europe more power over its economy. If it votes No, it would be denied another bailout if needed.

Although the pro-treaty people are out ahead, there will also be a substantial No vote fuelled by a general wave of anger and disenchantment.

In Ireland, strict austerity has been the order of the day since its €85 billion ($139.4 billion) bailout in 2010.

That anger has been a huge boost for Sinn Fein, whose anti-austerity and anti-European stance has tripled its opinion poll support in five years.

But most traders in the bustling Cork market, which is experiencing a surge of tourism since the Queen's visit a year ago, back the fiscal treaty.

"I'll be voting Yes," Joe Hegarty, of Heaven's Cakes, said. "We've no other option, have we? People have taken the hardship, piece by piece, and they're just getting on with it."

A third trader, Tom Durcan, said: "A Yes vote will assure us we'll get through the mess we're in."

Just two traders, neither of whom wished to be named, said they would vote No. "The way it's being presented by the Yes people is virtually insulting. The idea that there would be absolutely no other alternative source of funds is facile, it's simply not true," said one.

The Government hopes a second bailout will not be needed, but claims a No vote would endanger that possibility. Prime Minister Enda Kenny said: "I understand the pain that people have endured and the daily desperate anxiety that is being faced by people whose household budgets have become an enormously difficult balancing act. But the treaty offers us a vital insurance policy and the fact is that there is no other certain source of those funds."

The Justice Minister, Alan Shatter, made the same case, adding: "Remember - it wasn't raining when Noah built the Ark."

All the opinion polls during the campaign have put the Yes vote ahead, the latest by 57 to 43 per cent.

Under the terms of the existing bailout the Government has committed itself to continuing austerity, while also stressing the need for growth. It is determined Ireland should not become a disruptive nuisance that might get blamed for adding to Europe's crisis.

But, as in recent votes in France and, especially, Greece, a substantial minority feels alienated and sore. Many of these have turned to Sinn Fein on a scale that alarms other parties.

Sinn Fein, especially south of the Irish border, is a party of the left. From this spot it is increasingly striking a chord with the unemployed, the low-paid who are hard-hit by new taxes and charges and families whose young are emigrating to Australia and America.

Sinn Fein's poll performance, which five years ago stood at 7 per cent, is now at 24 per cent, while Gerry Adams has the highest satisfaction rating of any party leader.

Support for the largest party in the ruling coalition, Fine Gael, has held up reasonably well, its naturally conservative voters instinctively inclined towards voting Yes.

But much of the Sinn Fein advance has been at the expense of Fine Gael's junior coalition partner, Labour.

Since the universal expectation is that even more austerity is ahead, many predict Labour will continue to decline as its traditional support becomes ever more disgruntled.

A Yes vote in tomorrow's referendum would come as a huge relief for the Government and other parties that favour European co-operation.

Said Cork fishmonger Pat O'Connell: "Voting No to me would be suicidal ... We should vote Yes and get on with it."

- Independent

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