The Irish question

Ireland's tempestuous love affair with European treaty referendums is set for another date on 31 May. That leaves eight long weeks of debate before the public votes on the fiscal compact treaty. Over the past two, ambassadors, academics, politicians and interest groups have presented their views on the treaty to a parliamentary subcommittee.

The meandering name of that body – the subcommittee on the referendum on the intergovernmental treaty on stability, co-ordination and governance in the economic and monetary union – underlines the treaty's complexity and the extent to which it's seen as a turn-off. The Irish public have largely ignored the committee hearings and, with less than two months to go to polls, this has to be worrying for the government. John O'Brennan, director of European studies at NUI Maynooth, warned the committee on Wednesday that there was only a "fragile majority" on the yes side.

An opinion poll for the Sunday Business Post at the end of March reported a 49% to 33% split in favour of the treaty. One earlier that month showed a 44% to 29% divide. Undecided voters will yet again be crucial: 18% have yet to make up their minds.

Ireland has rejected two of the four European referendums put to voters over the course of the last decade. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition, now a year in office, has already lost a referendum – the public rejected a political reform poll last October. A hint of government complacency and a public overwhelmed by personal debt, rising unemployment and budget cuts could scupper the yes vote's chances.

The Irish Central Bank published a study on Thursday which showed that Irish households have suffered the most severe wealth destruction in Europe. Dan O'Brien in the Irish Times reported on Friday that the net worth of Irish households has fallen by 35% since 2007, the 17th consecutive quarter of decline. And yet Ireland does not do protest. Greek-style demonstrations do not suit an Irish mindset weary of decades of Northern Ireland violence. We are essentially a very conservative people. Nonetheless, there is a steady upswell of dissent building among the middle classes.

It is articulated through something very close to the Irish psychic–land. As part of the European Central Bank, European Commission and IMF programme, the government is obliged to introduce a household charge. This is an attempt to broaden the tax base as one means of addressing the yawning €18bn gap between income and expenditure. Ireland is virtually unique among its European neighbours in not having any property-based charges.

The deadline for the €100 charge was last Friday. To date just 886,000 householders had voluntarily registered of the 1,570,814 properties affected. There is some confusion about the number of properties to be registered, with organisations opposed to the new tax estimating that the figure is closer to 1.8 homes.

Either way, approximately half of those required to pay the €100 have not done so.

Fine Gael held their first national conference since they entered power last weekend. Controversially, the police asked the convention centre which hosted the party gathering, to draw the black blinds across the entire glass façade of the building. Bizarrely, they were worried that the 5,000-10,000 household protesters outside were likely to be aggravated by the sight of party delegates going about their business.

The prime minister, Enda Kenny, was absolutely resolute in his televised conference address. "I want Ireland to have the same access as other countries to the insurance policy of the ESM – a critical reassurance for investors. We can do this, we can achieve this ... by voting YES. Yes to Europe. Yes to Jobs. Yes to Ireland. YES on May 31st."

And this is why the referendum may fail. The fiscal treaty is ostensibly about imposing greater budget discipline on the Eurozone 17-nation Eurozone. But try telling that to an angry Irish public. Minister after minister has repeatedly said that the treaty is entirely separate to any efforts to secure an improvement in Ireland's banking debt. The treaty, they say, has nothing to do with the terms of Ireland's ECB/EU/IMF bailout. But referendums are never on the question that is asked on the ballot paper.

Declan Ganley, a leading no campaigner on the Lisbon treaty, hedged his bets before the parliamentary subcommittee when he said he was voting no, but added: "In this case, no means 'maybe'." He will only vote yes if his conditions are met – the introduction of a United States of Europe with a directly elected leadership and a eurobond backed by tax revenue across Europe. Some chance. He believes the European Central Bank has "a moral duty to federalise that debt", and that the treaty does nothing to solve Europe's insolvency. The Libertas founder also remarked that treaty rules are not always applied to the bigger countries noting that France and Germany had broken the fiscal rules set out under Maastricht treaty.

Éamon O'Cuiv, who resigned as deputy leader of the largest opposition party, Fianna Fail, in February after hinting that he would vote no on the treaty, holds similar views, but has very specific conditions. He has demanded the regulation of the banking and financial sector at a central European level and a commitment from the EU that there will be no further attempt to introduce non-elected technocratic governments in EU states. O'Cuiv also argued against tax harmonisation and proposed the ECB be reformed in order to act as a normal central bank with the ability to buy bonds from the sovereign directly.

Like Ganley, O'Cuiv believes the European banks that lent to Irish banks should assume their fair share of the losses that were caused by their "reckless behaviour, instead of saddling the debt on the Irish people".

Watch and wait. A perfect storm is brewing, and it is called the European fiscal treaty.

Elaine Byrne is a lecturer, journalist, consultant and political analyst.

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