Nice Treaty - Sooner date of poll known the better

IT says much for the persuasive powers of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy that it only needed a mere two hours to convince Fianna Fáil backbenchers and senators of the rectitude of current economic stringencies.

Having absorbed the doctrine of economic adjustments or cutbacks, in layman's terms they were then dispatched from the two-day party meeting in Killarney to spread the doctrine of Nice being vital to the country's interests.

That tendentious mission is likely to prove more time-consuming for them on the doorsteps than it did for the party chiefs in the luxury of the Great Southern Hotel.

For starters, only 16% of people know what the implications of the Nice Treaty are.

That depressing detail emerged from a telephone survey undertaken on behalf of the Referendum Commission.

Quite rightly, the chairman of the commission, retired Chief Justice Tom Finlay, described the results as "deeply disturbing", especially since only 28% of people under the age of 24 will take the trouble to vote.

While the commission will conduct a campaign which will explain what the treaty is all about, as well as trying to encourage people to go out and vote, those factors will have to give the Cabinet cause for serious concern at their meeting in Donegal today.

The Taoiseach has intimated that that meeting will consider setting a date for the referendum on Nice, and the sooner that is announced the better. The issues involved need a focus to get a proper debate underway, and deciding on a date for polling would certainly inject a sense of urgency into it.

It hardly needed an admission such as yesterday's from the Taoiseach to recall that the first referendum on Nice was poorly handled by the Government. That is an understatement, and hopefully, serious lessons will have been learned from that debacle.

If they were not, then the results of the Referendum Commission's survey should concentrate their minds that there exists a formidable challenge to explain the implications of the treaty to the public at large.

What is definitely not needed is that the Government, currently facing the prospect of an electoral backlash because of recent cutbacks, be perceived to influence sectoral voters with timely announcements.

It is difficult not to draw that conclusion already, in relation to the country's farmers, who had a very low turnout for the last Nice vote.

During the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting in Killarney, their current priorities were outlined as agriculture; jobs; the economy and growth, in that order. A briefing document was circulated indicating that the Government would seek to increase by 100 million livestock premiums due from Brussels by October 16 which should be 400 million.

That latter figure would represent 60% due to farmers at that stage, but the Government is trying to get it raised to 80%.

As well, efforts are being made to pay out arable area aid for cereals, about 133 million, on October 16, although it is not due until November.

No doubt, the Government can argue that special consideration is being given to farmers in recognition of the problems they endured because of the exceptionally bad weather. A more cynical observation would be that the delivery date of the Government's transparent concern for the farmers, will be followed quite quickly by polling day.

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