Europe holds its breath for result of Ireland's vote

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Political Europe held its breath as the Republic of Ireland's voters went to the polls yesterday in a referendum to decide the fate of the EU's Lisbon Treaty.

The outcome is expected to be so close that no one was confidently predicting success for their side.

Much is at stake since a "no" vote could, it is said, seriously hold up the European project and affect Ireland's reputation as one of the most enthusiastically pro-European of countries.

The Irish establishment, which is almost universally strongly in favour of European integration, received a huge shock during the campaign when an opinion poll gave the "no" camp a lead of five percentage points. A later poll reversed that result, and major figures from all the main political parties have been tramping the streets and lanes of Ireland trying to develop momentum.

The big parties have temporarily moved away from adversarial politics to make joint appeals for a "yes" vote. Those taking part in the campaign include the Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, and three of his predecessors. The five parties advocating a "yes" vote hold 96 per cent of the seats in the Dail.

At a south Dublin polling station yesterday, however, they had not convinced one bank clerk in his forties. "I'm voting 'no', on the basis that the 'yes' case is not proven," he said. "I'm a pro-European but the politicians are arrogant – they're saying they know better, leave it to them." A civil servant in her thirties took the opposite view. "I've just voted 'yes'," she said. "The 'no' campaign has been very negative and scaremongering but this is largely an administrative and procedural document. We're in Europe, we need to be part of it."

The two camps have accused each other of exaggeration and dishonesty in a campaign that has gone on for months, but which only really caught fire in the past few weeks.

A "no" vote would be seen as a major embarrassment for all the major parties and especially for Mr Cowen, who has only been Prime Minister for a few weeks. It would mean he would have to trudge back to Brussels with the unwelcome message that a return to the drawing board would be necessary.

He said: "The problem is that if I go to the European Council with a 'no' vote, obviously the preliminary discussions will have to begin as to what happens. There'll be a great disappointment and a great sense of uncertainty as to where we go from here."

Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Fein, which has been one of the leading backers of the "no" campaign, said every vote would be crucial. She said: "I'm hopeful the Irish people will put the ball at the foot of the Taoiseach to go back and negotiate a better deal for us."

The Irish are worried not just about Europe's overall future but about forfeiting the goodwill which Brussels has traditionally displayed towards them. The former prime minister Garret FitzGerald warned: "It's not a questioning of threatening – it's a fact. The impact is going to be great."

This factor was stressed by the French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, who said: "It would be very, very, very troubling that we would not be able to count on the Irish, who counted a lot on Europe's money. The Irish would truly penalise themselves."

Yesterday the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, – using rather less ominous language – said that ratification by all states would allow the EU "to turn the institutional page and concentrate 100 per cent on delivering on the expectations of Europe's peoples".

Last night the French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said: "If the Irish people decide to reject the treaty of Lisbon, naturally, there will be no treaty of Lisbon."

The Irish Independent declared: "This could be the most momentous decision of our lives. A "no" vote would present the EU with a crisis. Those who suggest we should send the government back to negotiate a 'better' deal are either very naive or are consciously misleading the public.

"In terms of national pride and international status, Europe helped define our place among the nations of the world and won us respect."