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UK

Ireland's EU treaty battle aimed at churchgoers

BALLINA, Ireland (Reuters) - Ireland’s cities are festooned with posters for and against a treaty to reform the EU, but in the countryside the battle is waged at farm shows and churches.

A demonstrator holds a banner during a protest rally "Freedom for Ireland" to support Ireland's and Czech Republic's state sovereignty in front of the Ireland Embassy in Prague September 24, 2009. REUTERS/David W Cerny

“No” vote and “yes” vote campaigners dash from parish to parish and muck about in fields crammed with farm machinery hoping to have a word with a parishioner here and a farmer there, to whittle down the remaining undecideds.

In the western county of Mayo, a religiously conservative and heavily agricultural constituency which voted two thirds against the treaty last year, activists are out in force for a vote next Friday which will have repercussions across Europe.

“The difference last time was that we ran a much stronger campaign,” said Sean McKenna of Coir, or Justice, a non-profit organisation which claims the treaty would attack Ireland’s low tax regime, decimate the minimum wage and open the door to abortion in this deeply Catholic country.

“They (the ‘yes’ side) are out and about a lot more now,” he added, outflanked by pro-treaty supporters at the gates of early morning mass in the small north Mayo town of Crossmolina.

Last year, Ireland’s main political parties waged a lacklustre and complacent campaign, and the electorate responded by ditching the treaty, thereby shelving the European Union’s foreign policy ambitions.

“We’re much more concentrated and much more focussed this time. We have to be. We learned our lesson,” said Dara Calleary, a local member of parliament and junior minister for the deeply unpopular governing Fianna Fail party.

He has redoubled his efforts, hurrying through narrow country lanes to chase votes at three more churches. He would have made it to five had the priest’s homily in the tiny village of Keenagh not been so thorough.

VOTING IN GOOD CONSCIENCE

The treaty’s downfall last year was heavily influenced by a lack of clear information about what the charter entailed, as well as misconceptions that it would mean Ireland losing control over taxation, military neutrality and strict abortion laws.

“People’s lack of confidence in their understanding was more likely to occur in, broadly speaking, midlands and western seaboard areas with the exception of Galway,” Richard Sinnott, politics professor at University College Dublin, said.

The government is hoping concessions wrested from Brussels to clear up confusions -- combined with fear of economic isolation in the event of a second “no” -- will swing opinion on October 2.

“We’re bad enough now and I wouldn’t like to take any risks so I’ll be giving a pragmatic ‘yes’,” said retired Ballina-based teacher Sean Burke, 71, whose hesitant initial support has been hardened owing to the greatly changed economic climate.

“I don’t know much about the Lisbon Treaty but we’re a long time in Europe and there’s no going back,” agreed Roisin Mullen, an elderly parishioner in Crossmolina.

Surveys suggest Ireland will comfortably ratify the charter, triggering its introduction across the 27-member bloc.

But some Catholics remain deeply suspicious.

Coir, which has links to right-wing pro-life group Youth Defence, is arguing that the treaty will give the European Court of Justice the right to rule on abortion and is running a provocative campaign with posters featuring foetuses.

Another group, Eire go Brach, ran ads in a Catholic newspaper warning that the EU could seize elderly peoples’ savings and homes and take children from people who suffer from mild forms of alcoholism or depression if Lisbon is passed.

The Catholic Church has issued a statement saying the treaty would not sanction abortion but it has declined to endorse a “yes” vote, leaving followers to vote their conscience.

“Abortion is very big on my agenda,” said Sean Moran, 40, an unemployed car-industry worker from Keenagh.

“I strongly believe that if we do vote ‘yes’ that sooner or later abortion will come into this country. If me voting ‘no’ can stop that, then I will.”

FRUSTRATED FARMERS

In the cities, Coir’s campaign is notable for targeting working class voters with eye-catching posters controversially warning that the treaty will slash the Irish minimum wage to 1.84 euros an hour from 8.65 euros.

Economists have dismissed the claim and the government has slammed the posters as untruthful scaremongering but in the countryside Coir is trying to capitalise on farming woes, saying rural workers have been “milked dry” by the EU.

“Farmers are in a very, very difficult place and I think they’re going to take some of that frustration out in the vote,” Calleary warned, referring to plummeting dairy prices and other problems afflicting Irish agriculture.

However, the 85,000-strong Irish Farmers Association (IFA) has thrown its support behind the treaty with greater force and a recent Farmers Journal/Red C poll showed 69 percent of its members will vote “yes” with only 15 percent voting “no.”

“Most farmers are for it. My impression from my parish would be that a lot of people understand it better,” Tom O’Byrne, a priest from Laois with a farming background, said at the National Ploughing Championship.

“I’d expect it to get through.”

Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Michael Roddy

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