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Kenny's bold poll gamble


Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore are calling for a 'yes' vote.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore are calling for a 'yes' vote.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore are calling for a 'yes' vote.

By calling a referendum on the fiscal compact agreed by eurozone leaders last December, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has stolen a march, not just on the usual suspects -- sovereignty fetishists, neutrality obsessives and homegrown Europhobes -- but also on our European partners.

Ever since eurozone leaders agreed the fiscal compact, which sets strict limits on the budget deficits that can be run up by single currency member countries, last December the Government has been facing ever more insistent calls from Sinn Fein, the United Left Alliance, various independents and, more recently, Fianna Fail for a referendum.

Yesterday Mr Kenny gave them what they wanted. By doing so, he brilliantly wrong-footed those who had been calling for a referendum to approve the fiscal compact.

Instead of a lengthy High Court battle followed by the inevitable Supreme Court appeal, during which the Government would have been portrayed as seeking to deny the people a say in the matter, Mr Kenny has given them what they wanted by calling a referendum, which will probably take place in May, on the agreement.

The official line from the Government is that the decision to call a referendum followed advice it received from Attorney-General Maire Whelan.

However, while yesterday's decision was undoubtedly good law, it was even better politics.

Not alone did the decision catch those who had been calling for a referendum on the hop, the timing of the announcement also puts it up to our European partners.

Following the loss of the first referendums on the Nice and Lisbon Treaties, our EU partners are well aware of just how difficult it is to persuade the Irish electorate to approve European agreements. Unlike the Nice and Lisbon Treaties, it seems unlikely that there could be a second referendum on the fiscal compact if it was rejected by Irish voters first time round. There will be no second chances with the fiscal compact.

So what can our European partners do to ensure that Irish voters approve the fiscal compact at the first attempt? On March 31, the Government is due to hand over another €3.1bn to the Central Bank. This is the second instalment of the €30.7bn of "promissory notes" that the Government has pledged to shore up the former Anglo Irish Bank.

As Mr Kenny is only too aware, nothing related to the collapse of the Irish banking system has generated greater public bitterness than the Anglo promissory notes. If the Irish Government is forced to hand over a further €3.1bn at the end of next month, then the referendum's chances of passing will take a very severe drubbing.

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So will our European partners come to the rescue by agreeing to lift some of the Anglo burden off the shoulders of the Irish taxpayer? A generous settlement of the promissory notes issue would greatly aid the Government in its campaign for a 'Yes' vote in the referendum.

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