The Vote For Europe: Brussels loses out to the confessions of a mistress

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The Independent Online
IN A sadly unequal contest for public attention between the sexual confessions of a prime minister's predatory mistress and European elections, Brussels has come a poor second in Ireland.

The Republic's 2.7 million voters are too engrossed with revelations of the tempestuous affair the four-times Taoiseach and ex-Fianna Fail leader Charles Haughey has had with the volatile social diarist and fashion writer Terry (Teresa) Keane for 27 years to worry too much about subsidiarity.

The affair was no secret. For years Ms Keane, separated wife of a High Court judge, referred to her liaison with "Sweetie" in her weekly column.

Fianna Fail, under the current Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, is praying voters will forgive these past sins and not punish tomorrow's candidates. To date only one European issue has ignited the public imagination; whether Ireland should join the US-founded Nato peace-keeping alliance, Partnership for Peace (PfP).

Mr Ahern has struggled to dispel claims that joining means diluting Irish neutrality. The Greens cited Nato documents predicting PfP would play an important role in Nato's expansion. A US ambassador said a bigger PfP meant a "razor-thin" difference between Nato partners and PfP allies.

The issue is sensitive. Generations born since independence are committed to non-alignment. They equate their neutrality with Third World aid, international peace-keeping and Irish UN disarmament initiatives.

Mr Ahern had promised a referendum on PfP entry in 1997, but he now believes European hustings are a sufficient forum for debating it. This about-turn has drawn a back-lash: while 62 per cent favour joining (77 per cent in 1996), 71 per cent want a referendum. All three main Dail parties back joining PfP.

That said, how PfP collectively decides what UN resolutions mean is a mystery. The Balkan war makes this more urgent. PfP's stated role says members will "refrain from the use of force against the territorial integrity or independence of any state, (and) respect existing borders and settle disputes by peaceful means".

Irish voters are sharply split over the Nato air strikes. Without a core standing body, many query if PfP has any collective existence independent of Nato.

Mr Ahern says: "PfP is not the same thing as Nato. It does not involve any mutual defence guarantee or commitment, and does not affect our military neutrality. PfP does not oblige (us) to support any policy or action with which we disagree." Aides insist the Dail alone would determine the extent of Irish participation in PfP.

Labour, nervous over PfP, expects these doubts to weaken Fianna Fail, long Ireland's dominant electoral force. Sleaze scandals that dog FF cut its support 11 points in a year. (FF has 46 per cent; centre-right Fine Gael opposition 25; Labour a poor 11). In the Euro Parliament, Fianna Fail holds seven seats; Fine Gael four; Greens two; Labour and Independents one each.

This month FF's support recovered five points, just as another FF MP, Liam Lawlor, asked the High Court to stop a tribunal questioning him. Last weekend a top Ahern aide left over a conflict of interest and two judges quit after FF intervention in a drink-driving case.

New reports that Mr Haughey spent pounds 2,000 a week on his mistress, on top of regal living in his mansion and private island (as he lectured Ireland on over-spending) worsened FF jitters. The result is epidemic mistrust. Even first-time FF local authority candidates report bruising doorstep encounters.

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