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22 March 2001 Edition

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No guarantee that Nice Treaty referendum will be fair

BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN

Its referendum time again, this time three at one go on 31 May, just to add to the confusion of an underinformed and confused electorate. Central to the three referenda is the Nice Treaty. This will be the fifth referendum taken since 1972 on an ever-deepening integration of the 26 Counties into the EU. The other referenda include the deletion of the death penalty from the 26-County Constitution and an amendment to permit the Dublin Government to adhere to the International Criminal Court Convention.

It is crucially important that the public gets a chance not only to read and understand exactly what the Nice Treaty and other referenda are about but also to debate in a balanced way in as wide a forum as possible the negatives and positives of further integration with our 14 EU partners as well as the growing list of prospective EU members in Central and Southern Europe.

Sinn Féin has said the state must ensure that there is a balanced debate and equal funding for both sides campaigning in the Treaty of Nice referendum. The party is calling for a `No' vote because the Treaty of Nice will further undermine Irish sovereignty, politically and economically, and bring Ireland closer into a European military alliance.

The party's spokesperson on EU Affairs, the Mayor of Sligo, Alderman Seán MacManus, said: ``For Sinn Féin, sovereignty means recognising the rights of the people, not ceding power to unelected officials. We want to see Europe defending our democratic rights, not eroding them.

``This treaty will entirely change the economic, political and military face of Europe by moving us closer to an EU super state through the surrendering of national sovereignty, undermining of Irish neutrality, increasing centralisation, and lack of accountability.'' Alderman MacManus added: ``The state must ensure that there is a balanced debate and equal funding for both sides. There is a particular onus on the media to ensure even-handed coverage given the fact that the government has given people only ten weeks to get to grips with this very important treaty.''

The prospects of a fair referendum are remote. Apart from the confusion of running three referenda on the same day it is still unclear about how the government proposes to inform the public fairly about the intricacies of the 80-page Nice Treaty.

The Referendum Commission established in 1998 because of the McKenna judgment, which proved that the state subsidising yes campaigns for EU referenda was unconstitutional, has up until now worked within very narrow parameters. In the 1998 Amsterdam and Good Friday referenda, a very boring and inaccessible information strategy was used to inform the public. Rather than funding both sides equally to access the public with their real positions, the commission produced staid and boring ads and information leaflets.

We need more than just a referendum on the Nice Treaty. We need a vibrant debate, between the political parties and lobby groups lining up for and against. We need to hear what not only Sinn Féin think but what the National Platform and the Peace and Neutrality Alliance and Green Party think also.

We need also to recognise that in all the previous referenda the Dublin government deliberately abused their position of power and control of vital media resources to secure Yes votes, and in 1986 were forced into having a referendum on the Single European Act only after the Crotty judgment showed it would have been unconstitutional not to.

The lesson of our previous referenda experiences is that the record of successive Dublin governments is not a good one. They have acted to bring fairness into referenda campaigns in the most grudging way. The first stage of the Nice Treaty campaign then sadly is not just to put the case against the Treaty but to ensure that the No campaign finds its rightful voice.

Further information on the Treraty of Nice and the campiagn aganst it can be obtained at http://www.nationalplatform.org
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