Europe’s leaders were tonight thrown into turmoil as Irish voters comprehensively rejected the Lisbon reform treaty.
Governments across the EU immediately pledged to carry on with the process of ratifying the treaty – the successor to the abandoned constitution – despite the Irish vote.
But with the treaty requiring the ratification of all 27 member states, there was no clear idea how they could move forward.
A subdued Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who led the “Yes” campaign, made clear that there would be no second referendum – as has happened in Ireland in the past – to try to get it through.
“That doesn’t arise today because the people have just spoken,” he said.
“My focus is on respecting the decision they have made. It is now my job to discuss with my European colleagues on how we will proceed in the light of this decision.”
The result of the referendum – rejecting the treaty by a majority of 53.4% to 46.6% – was finally announced in Dublin Castle shortly after 5pm amid boisterous celebrations by “No” campaigners.
From early in the day however, it had become clear which way it was going. The result came as a particular shock as it had appeared in the final few days to be tilting towards the ’Yes’ campaign.
In Brussels, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso insisted that the treaty was not dead.
“I believe that we should not rush to conclusions,” he said. “I believe that the treaty is alive and we should now try to find a solution.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a joint statement regretting the outcome and saying they remain convinced that the treaty’s reforms were still needed to make the EU more effective.
In Britain, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that the Irish government needed time to consider its next step.
“It is a result that needs to be respected and digested,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said that the Government would push on with the treaty ratification Bill currently going through its final parliamentary stages.
“I think it is right that we follow the view that each country must see the ratification process to a conclusion,” he said.
However, Tory leader David Cameron said that after the rejection of the EU constitution by French and Dutch voters in 2005, it was time to accept that the reform plan was over.
He said that it would be the “height of arrogance” for Gordon Brown to continue the ratification process in Britain.
“By all rights now it should be declared dead. The French said ’no’ to it, the Dutch said ’no’ to it, then it was brought back and the only people who have been given a chance to pass judgment on it, the Irish, have now said ’no’ to it.
“The elites in Brussels have got to listen to people in Europe who do not want endless powers being passed from nation states to Brussels. They do not want these endless constitutions and treaties.”
Declan Ganley, the businessman and chairman of pressure group Libertas which spearheaded the "No" campaign, said that Irish voters had delivered a clear message to Brussels.
“This is a very clear and loud voice that has been sent yet again by citizens of Europe rejecting the anti-democratic nature of Brussels governance that has to change,” he said.
The focus will now turn to the EU summit in Brussels next week when leaders will have their first chance to discuss the implications of the result.
Across EU, the result was seen as a huge setback for the long-running attempts to reform the organisation’s unwieldy decision-making processes.
However, critics said that the treaty – which would have created an elected EU president and an EU foreign minister while cutting back the number of national vetoes – gave too much power to Brussels.
Slovenian Prime Minister Kanez Jansa, the current holder of the rotating EU presidency, said he regretted the outcome, but would respect the democratic will of the Irish voters.
“I will invite the Irish prime minister to explain the reasons for the rejection of the treaty by the Irish people,” he said.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described the result as “a severe setback” but said Berlin would stick to its aim of implementing the treaty.
“The ratification process must continue. I am still convinced that we need this treaty – a treaty that makes Europe more democratic, more capable of acting and more transparent,” he said.
EU leaders had hoped to avoid a repeat of the 2005 referendums in France and the Netherlands which scuppered the original constitution.
This time only Ireland decided to put the treaty to a popular vote – even though critics said it differed little from the constitutional referendum - saying that it was obliged to do so under its own constitution.
The think-tank Open Europe, which opposed the treaty, warned that EU leaders could not afford to ignore the democratic will of the people again.
“This is a resounding victory on behalf of ordinary people across Europe over an out-of-touch and arrogant political elite,” said Open Europe director Neil O’Brien.
“If supporters of the EU constitution cannot even win in Ireland – one of the most pro-EU countries in Europe – it is clear that their vision for the future of Europe is now discredited in a most fundamental way.”