DUBLIN (Reuters) - Campaigners for the European Union’s reform treaty will use celebrity endorsements, Facebook and persuasive chats over cups of tea to encourage Irish voters to give the charter the thumbs up in a second referendum.
Ireland’s government cleared the way for an autumn plebiscite on Friday when it secured legal guarantees that the Lisbon Treaty would not affect its sovereignty on sensitive issues such as taxation, abortion and neutrality.
Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen is hoping the assurances, together with a more dynamic government campaign, will ensure the treaty will be passed and give the 27-member bloc a more influential role in world affairs.
But after last year’s shock “No” result and Cowen’s own subterranean popularity levels, pro-Lisbon forces in Ireland are not leaving it up to the government.
“The political establishment in the country has obviously taken a knock in recent months and I think that there is a real need for a genuine campaign,” said Bart Storan, one of the founders of Generation Yes, a movement of young people created in the aftermath of last year’s “No” vote.
Around 1,200 people have signed up to follow Generation Yes’s campaign on social networking site Facebook and the group’s website has a section entitled “Fight the Lies” to shoot down what they call false arguments against the treaty.
Storan, a recent graduate, says they are targeting voters from 18 to 30 years of age.
“There are an awful lot of people around the country who are genuinely interested in getting involved just because they see this as a vital step for our country going forward,” said the 23-year-old.
Recent opinion polls show a majority of Irish people are now in favor of the treaty, which is intended to streamline decision-making in the EU and give the bloc a permanent president and a diplomatic corps.
Ireland’s stunning transformation from financial “Celtic Tiger” to the worst performing economy in western Europe has warmed voters’ view of Brussels, which is seen as a safety net against an Icelandic-style meltdown.
But Cowen cannot rely on the economy and his legal guarantees to ensure a smooth passage for Lisbon 2.
The government’s support levels are at record lows amid widespread anger at Ireland’s economic crisis and there has been criticism of Cowen’s communications style; his public persona is gruff despite a penchant for bar-room ballads among friends.
Irish people are largely pro-European but there are concerns about a loss of sovereignty to Brussels and suspicions about the EU’s democratic credentials, which “No” campaigners, who range from the far left to the Catholic right, will seek to exploit.
Last year, the anti-Lisbon campaign outshone the government’s half-hearted efforts by focusing on emotive single issues, some of which, including an allegation that the charter would result in conscription to a European army, were untrue.
This year, the “No” camp will be without the charismatic and lucrative presence of Declan Ganley, a self-made millionaire who became the public face of the anti-Lisbon campaign.
Ganley has said he will not take a leading role in another effort to defeat the charter after failing to win a seat to the European Parliament.
Without Ganley’s backing, “No” campaigners showed signs of the shortcomings they faced on Friday when they were unable to print press releases at a news conference and had to prop up a promotional banner using glasses of water.
Last year, singer Sinead O‘Connor and boy band impressario Louis Walsh argued against the treaty.
This time round, supporters of the charter are hoping to have their own celebrities to argue their case.
“We plan a very modern, edgy campaign,” said Olivia Buckley, the director of “We Belong,” a group recently established to fight in favor of Lisbon.
“Part of the strategy will be using well-known people from across the worlds of art, sport, culture and entertainment,” said the former public relations executive.
Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin