Ireland to hold EU treaty vote in first half 08-PM

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DUBLIN, Nov 10 (Reuters) Ireland is expected to hold a referendum on the European Union's planned reform treaty in the first half of next year, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said today.

The reform treaty, backed by EU leaders last month, replaces the planned constitution which was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005, triggering an institutional crisis in the 27-country union.

This time round Ireland, whose own constitution can only be amended by a referendum, is expected to be the only country to ask voters directly to back a treaty that needs to be ratified by all EU states if it is to take effect from 2009 as planned.

A poll in Monday's Irish Times newspaper showed just 25 per cent of Irish voters planned to back the planned reform treaty in a referendum, while 62 per cent didn't know how they would vote or had no opinion. 13 per cent surveyed intended to reject the treaty.

The new treaty will reform the EU's institutions.

''At this point, it seems very likely that we will be alone in holding a referendum,'' Ahern told a conference of European journalists in Dublin.

''No decision has yet been taken on a date, but it is likely that we will hold our referendum in the first half of 2008.'' Ahern said a referendum bill would be presented in Ireland's parliament ''early in the new year'', which would need approval by lawmakers.

He said campaigning would then begin among Irish voters to back the treaty.

Ireland, whose economic boom over the last decade was underpinned in part by EU funding, is generally seen as being among the region's most pro-European countries but that has not always guaranteed success at the ballot box in the past.

Ahern said he was ''not hugely surprised'' at the number of people polled who did not know how they would vote.

''We must ensure that the public clearly understand the question facing them and why it is important that they vote,'' he said.

''The government will also be working hard to explain why, for our part, we are certain that the Lisbon Reform Treaty is in the interest of both Ireland and Europe.'' In 2001 Irish voters rejected the Nice Treaty designed to enable EU enlargement, forcing the government to hold a second vote that was widely criticised as undemocratic at the time. A second vote is unlikely to be an option in 2008.

Ahern said the debate in Ireland would stretch far beyond the country.

''Because of this, we can expect people from abroad to try and shape the outcome,'' he said.

''For some, particularly those opposed to the European Union, it will be a proxy for a national debate that they wished they could have had in their own country.'' REUTERS PJ RAI2026

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