Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has warned a UK exit from Europe could force a new referendum in Ireland.
He said Ireland should be as helpful as possible to Britain as it seeks concessions from the EU ahead of a poll on whether to exit as early as next year.
However, the former Fianna Fáil leader said his experience of European referenda showed they opened up new issues not envisaged by negotiators and could be exploited by foreign interests.
“Treaty change is difficult, if you have treaty change it means every one of the 27 [other member states] have to ratify in national parliaments or in referendums,” he said.
“I don’t see how you can make the changes the prime minister [David Cameron] is looking for without some sort of treaty changes.”
Mr Ahern served as taoiseach between 1997 and 2008. In 2004 he held office as president of the European Council during which European leaders agreed a new European constitution.
The British government wants that constitution reformed if it is to stay in the EU, touching on issues of sovereignty, competitiveness, and immigration.
Mr Ahern recalled battles over Irish referendums on the Lisbon and Nice treaties.
“When you negotiate these huge agreements and bring it to the people you get different issues,” he said. “Pollsters said it was about Irish neutrality or about abortion and there was interference by several countries who could not get their own way in their own country so came over to try to influence us in our country”.
Ireland voted twice on the Lisbon Treaty, which centred on the creation of a European constitution, approving it in 2009.
Mr Ahern was in office during the poll on the Nice Treaty, which reformed the institutional structure of the EU to accommodate eastern expansion. The referendum was passed in 2002.
He told a conference in Newry, Co Down, that his views had changed since the referendum on Ireland entering the EU.
“I don’t love Europe as much as I did in 1972,” he said. “The alternative is something that we sure don’t want.”
He said Ireland had strong reasons for wanting the UK to remain in the EU, particularly preserving trade links, but added: “I understand many of the UK’s objectives, the Irish Government have said they are open to considering sensible proposals.”
Those include immigration and benefits.
“Preventing any abuses of freedom of movement will serve to strengthen the freedom of movement in the long run,” Mr Ahern said.
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