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‘Yes’ in Ireland, ‘whew’ in EU

Dublin, Oct. 20 (Reuters): Irish voters backed the European Union’s eastward expansion in a dramatic turnabout in a referendum on Sunday, ending fears of a delay in the growth of the 15-member bloc.

The final count in Ireland’s second vote on an EU enlargement treaty put the “Yes” vote at 62.89 per cent, according to official results. The final figures were compiled by the Alliance for Europe group using official results from returning officers.

The official declaration of the results by Ireland’s chief returning officer was due later today.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who campaigned hard to overturn a stunning defeat last year when Irish voters rejected the Nice Treaty, hailed the results from yesterday’s poll as giving “an emphatic ‘Yes’ to enlargement”.

“It’s a very important vote for Ireland, for Europe, but mainly for the applicant countries,” he said on a trip to southeastern Ireland. “I think Ireland will be seen in a good light right across eastern and central Europe.”

At the EU’s Brussels base, where officials have been hanging on every twist and turn of the vote to see if plans to admit the 10 new members in 2004 would stay on track, there were signs of relief.

“This result demonstrates that the only people in the EU to have been consulted have, after a period of reflection, given the clearest possible signal that Europe’s rendezvous with history cannot be further delayed or postponed,” said president of the European Parliament Pat Cox, himself an Irishman.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in a statement: “I welcome the positive result of the Irish referendum on the Nice treaty. The people of Ireland were aware of their great responsibility to Europe. This decision opens the way for the enlargement of the European Union.”

Irish voters, fearing it might infringe Ireland’s policy of military neutrality, initially rejected the treaty which was signed in the French resort of Nice two years ago to prepare EU institutions to admit 10 new members mainly from eastern Europe.

“If the results hold up, then tonight I can drink a glass of Guinness and sing I love you like Ireland,” Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller told TVN24 all-news television earlier today, referring to a folk song popular in Poland, one of the candidate states.

During counting today, one after another of Ireland’s 42 districts reported overwhelming “Yes” votes. The remote constituency of Donegal North-East, for example, which last year voted 60 per cent “No”, was headed for more than 50 per cent “Yes”.

Ahern’s Dublin Central constituency, which embarrassed him last year, this time approved the treaty by more than 57 per cent to just under 43 per cent with a bigger turnout of 46 per cent of the electorate, voting officials said.

The results showed a big increase in turnout to about 50 per cent, compared with a national average of just under 35 per cent last year. Main groups opposing the treaty conceded there was little likelihood of it being defeated.

The “No” vote last year by prosperous Ireland, one of the biggest economic success stories in the EU, led to serious soul-searching in this nation of 3.9 million people, always previously a big backer of EU treaties.

Faced with the possible derailment of EU expansion plans, and the effect on Ireland’s standing in the EU, the government said the low turnout justified holding a second referendum, and ploughed millions of euros into a massive information campaign.

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