Irish voters will have their say on the European Union fiscal treaty after the Dublin authorities reluctantly announced a referendum yesterday.
The Irish coalition government had hoped to avoid a vote, but advice from its Attorney-General said that one should be held. Ministers will now be campaigning strongly for an endorsement of the treaty and crossing their fingers that things go to plan, acutely aware that previous referendums have produced results which the authorities did not hope for or expect. Voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 before passing it at the second time of asking a year later.
A distinct strain of anti-European sentiment is obvious in the Irish Republic where the bailout from the EU and other institutions has produced resentment about the strict austerity measures which accompanied it.
A signing ceremony for the fiscal compact is expected to go ahead on Friday at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels despite yesterday's Irish announcement. Some 25 countries will sign up – all the EU nations except Britain and the Czech Republic. David Cameron, who vetoed an EU-wide treaty in December, will arrive late for the session so that he will not witness the ceremony.
Irish ministers maintain they are confident of winning the vote, which could take place in May. But European sources have openly said that Dublin lobbied for treaty wording that would make a referendum unnecessary.
Although the government has a solid majority the Irish Labour party, who are the junior partners in the ruling coalition, slipped in a recent opinion poll. Support meanwhile rose significantly for Sinn Fein, whose anti-Europe stance means it will be campaigning for a No vote.
The referendum was announced in the Irish parliament by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who said the Attorney-General, Maire Whelan, had advised the cabinet that one should be held.
Ms Whelan's belief was that the treaty was a unique instrument outside the EU treaty architecture and that on balance a vote was needed to ratify it.
Downing Street said the referendum decision was "a matter for Ireland".
The Prime Minister's spokesman said: "We had our own particular issues but we have always known that those countries in the eurozone bound by new fiscal rules would be pooling sovereignty. The possibility of a referendum in Ireland has certainly been talked about so I don't think it's a great surprise."
Mr Cameron's stance in December was attacked as a "phantom veto" since the other 25 EU members went ahead anyway with an agreement outside the Union's governing treaties.