TAOISEACH Brian Cowen yesterday yielded to pressure from the Irish Farmers’ Association and cut a deal to ensure the organisation’s support for the Lisbon treaty.
With the gap between the yes and no sides narrowing, and time running out to the referendum on June 12, Mr Cowen needed the backing of the IFA and the potential 85,000 votes its members could deliver.
He got that support yesterday by agreeing to veto any world trade deal that is unacceptable to Irish agricultural interests.
This led to the IFA executive council unanimously calling for a yes vote in the referendum, prompting much relief in Government Buildings.
The IFA had been demanding a government guarantee to use the veto for several weeks, saying it could not support the treaty without it.
But up to yesterday, the Government steadfastly refused to give any such guarantee.
Mr Cowen and his ministers repeatedly said they would reject any deal damaging to Irish agriculture, but refused to explicitly state the veto would be used.
Just last Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin said: “You don’t, in the middle of a negotiating process, start bandying about a veto threat. You’d lose all credibility very quickly…
“It’s just a very bad tactic, and we don’t think it’s a tactic that we should deploy at this stage just for the sake of trying to win [votes].”
But that position changed yesterday when Mr Cowen spoke with IFA president Padraig Walshe.
In a Government statement afterwards, Mr Cowen reaffirmed that unanimity is required for European Union approval of the outcome of the current World Trade Organisation negotiations and Ireland could therefore veto the European agreement to an unacceptable deal.
“The taoiseach assured the IFA that he was prepared to use the veto if a deal that is unacceptable to Ireland is put to a vote,” the statement added.
Mr Walshe said he was satisfied the IFA had secured the clarity farmers needed on the use of the veto to protect Irish agriculture.
“IFA is now giving a strong recommendation calling for a yes vote from rural Ireland and a strong turnout in the referendum on June 12.”
Fine Gael welcomed both the Taoiseach’s “11th-hour U-turn” and the IFA’s decision to support the treaty, but questioned why Mr Cowen had taken to so long to give farmers the reassurance they needed, claiming the Government had “almost lost” a crucial source of votes.
But Mr Cowen insisted there had been no U-turn, saying the commitment to use the veto was in line with the Government’s consistent position that it would reject an unacceptable world trade deal.
The Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association will decide its position at a meeting this evening.
It remains to be seen whether the Government will attempt to reach agreement with another crucial voting bloc, SIPTU.
The trade union has said it will only recommend a yes vote if the Government promises to introduce legislation guaranteeing workers’ right to collective bargaining.
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