DUBLIN A group of Irish opposition lawmakers launched a campaign on Wednesday to petition the president for a referendum on Europe's new fiscal treaty with the aim of upsetting government hopes of a smooth ratification.
Irish support for the European Union has cooled during the financial crisis and there is no guarantee a referendum on tougher fiscal rules would succeed, throwing into doubt Dublin's commitment to the single currency and the future of the euro zone.
"Over the coming weeks I will be talking to people and seeing if we can achieve the numbers, because I think it's vitally important that the Irish people be given their say," said independent lawmaker Thomas Pringle.
Pringle has written to all members of parliament urging them to petition the president to call a referendum.
"I think if we receive the required number of signatures, I would imagine the president would honor that request and put the question to the Irish people," Pringle told national broadcaster RTE.
Ireland joined 24 other EU states on Monday in agreeing a pact for stricter budget discipline.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny asked the state's lawyer on Tuesday to prepare advice on whether a referendum was needed. That advice is expected within weeks, and until then the opposition group will try to drum up enough support in parliament to present a petition.
The opposition needs the backing of one third of the lower house of parliament and a majority in the upper house to petition President Michael D. Higgins, and can only submit a petition if the government opts not to hold a referendum and decides to legislate for the fiscal treaty instead.
NUMBERS FALL SHORT
The number of opposition and independent lawmakers fall short of the number needed to back a petition by three votes in the lower house and two in the upper house.
One backbencher from junior government partner Labour said on Tuesday that the tougher fiscal rules should be put to a vote, and the coalition cannot count on the support of four lower house members who voted against the government last year.
Should a vote be called by this means - which analysts say would be a dramatic break with past practice - the subsequent referendum would not be decided, as constitutional votes are, by a simple majority of votes cast.
The constitution states that if a majority votes to veto a bill in a referendum called in this manner, the number of votes cast against the bill must amount to at least a third of the total electorate, a rarity in Irish referendums which usually attract low turnouts.
"In the history of the state, 'No' majorities comprising at least a third of the electorate have been few and far between," Michael Gallagher, professor of politics at Trinity College Dublin, wrote in a blog.
"Nothing is impossible these days, but it seems unlikely that Article 27 will prove to be a route by which the government is prevented from signing the treaty."
A recent opinion poll showed a large majority of Irish people want to vote on the new fiscal treaty, some of them angry at the prospect of years of European-imposed austerity and fearful Europe will force Dublin to raise its corporate tax rate.
Some independent MPs have said they would consider making a legal challenge if both the government and the president decide a referendum is not needed.
Even if the government decides a referendum is not needed there is a strong possibility that the president, presented with legislation covering the pact, would refer it to the Supreme Court. The court could then rule that a popular vote is needed.
President Higgins is a former senior member of the governing Labour party. His position is apolitical and largely ceremonial.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Tim Pearce)