From students to CEOs, Irish relief at "Yes" vote

DUBLIN Sat Oct 3, 2009 2:33pm EDT

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DUBLIN Oct 3 (Reuters) - Ireland's government and pro-Europe campaigners allowed themselves at best muted celebrations after a resounding popular ratification of the European Union's Lisbon Treaty.

With a backdrop of severe recession and rising dole queues, and an often bitter referendum campaign, the winning side appeared more relieved than ecstatic.

Government officials were careful not to appear triumphant, conscious that many of those who voted in favour of the EU reform charter, reversing last year's shock rejection, did so despite their deep anger at the administration.

"The government is not engaged in any celebratory parties. We are in a very difficult place (economically) and that's precisely why people have voted 'Yes'," Finance Minister Brian Lenihan told the state broadcaster.

Even the 'Yes' campaigners in Dublin's main count centre did little more than shake hands and smile as it became apparent the result had gone their way. Discreet arrangements were made for celebratory drinks.

Nevertheless, many of them saw the vote as historic.

"This is a great day," said Gary McGann, chief executive of Ireland's largest packaging group, Smurfit Kappa (SKG.I), who was a patron for the Ireland for Europe civic group.

"I've no interest in politics whatsoever, my interest was that we wouldn't destroy the future for my kids.

"I'm old enough that it won't matter. The damage would have been done to the generations to come, the companies and the potential and talent that resides in this country but needs an outlet and a marketplace."

Representing that generation, Nigel Smith, a 22-year-old European Studies student at Dublin's Trinity College, wore a beaming smile to go with his bright yellow Ireland For Europe t-shirt.

"I voted 'Yes' the last time but didn't get involved. This time there were groups of people -- Solicitors for Europe, Women for Europe -- representing whoever they wanted to represent, which was really encouraging," he said.

Smith said he had been working for weeks as a volunteer for eight to 10 hours a day to help secure a 'Yes' after the Irish rejected the treaty in a first referendum last year.

This time, the government as well as civic and business groups mounted a much livelier 'Yes' campaign, helped by the perception that Ireland should not isolate itself from Europe at a time of recession.

"I am relieved, we were out on the streets a lot," said Smith, before leaving with two friends draped in Irish flags.

But there was bitterness and resentment among treaty opponents who felt Ireland had been browbeaten by Europe, and that the outcome of the first vote should have been respected.

"I want to sympathise and commiserate with all our people who put in a great effort for the love of their country," said Richard Greene, spokesman for the Coir group, which opposed the treaty.

"We are extremely disappointed that the voice of the people was not heard the first time around."

Irish politicians working in Europe took satisfaction in victory as they prepared to return to Brussels, no longer the black sheep of Europe.

"It clearly will restore people's confidence in Ireland as a pro-European member state," Proinsias De Rossa, one of the country's 12 members of the European Parliament, told Reuters.

"The perception, whatever the reality, was that Ireland must be loosening its relationship with Europe. Why else would they vote 'No' to a treaty whose only purpose is to improve democracy and decision making?"

For Smurfit's McGann, who sits on the European Round Table of Industrialists and whose company has a presence in 22 European countries, that perception will be crucial in ensuring Ireland's business strengths at home and abroad.

"It's not that long ago that the signs were up saying 'Paddys need not apply'. Paddys can apply again," he said. (Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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