Saying yes could mean dooming Ireland to more long, hard years of austerity. But saying no could mean national bankruptcy next year.
Ireland's debt-burdened voters confronted an existential dilemma Thursday as they decided in a referendum whether to ratify the European Union's deficit-fighting treaty, a measure backed by Germany as a confidence-building measure but criticized by many economists as exactly the wrong kind of medicine for countries drowning in red ink.
Pro-treaty forces led by Prime Minister Enda Kenny stress that Ireland could lose its access to European bailout loans next year unless the treaty passes, leaving Ireland no reasonable choice but to say yes. Opponents say it would be better to pursue a showdown with EU partners now, and demand better debt-reduction terms at the risk of triggering a worse eurozone crisis, rather than commit to new rules requiring tougher deficit targets that Ireland simply can't meet.
Outside Dublin polling stations in churches and elementary schools, the citizens expressed equal measures of rage, bewilderment and resignation at the colossal toxic debts of Ireland's state-owned banks that brought their nation to its knees and will take decades to repay.
"The treaty will solve nothing, but we're facing massive cutbacks and charges no matter what Europe says anyway. And voting no would just create more problems for us," said Bridget Connolly, 42, who had just voted yes with no enthusiasm inside a Catholic girls' school transformed into a polling station for the day. "We're going to need European money next year, plain and simple. We can't afford to be thumbing our noses at Europe right now."
But many voters said they were swayed to vote no by campaigners' predictions that the treaty, if made law, would require Ireland to keep cutting spending and raising taxes until 2020 and beyond. Ireland has already weathered four years of austerity, more than any other European nation; is struggling to maintain tepid growth against the tide; and is hoping to resume normal borrowing on bond markets next year if it can convince analysts to raise its battered credit rating.
The no camp argued that throwing the fiscal treaty back in the EU's face would send political shockwaves throughout the continent, isolate austerity champions like Germany and speed the growing calls for a eurozone-wide strategy for releasing debt pressure on its weakest members. They said this must mean that the foreign banks and hedge funds which plowed money into Ireland, Greece and Portugal during good times now share the losses.
"Banks in Germany and Britain and elsewhere were just as responsible for the mess we're in. We're sick to the back teeth of being told it's all our own fault," said Gerard Cunningham, 50, who voted no inside a Catholic Church. "We've already bankrupted the country to try to pay back these foreign speculators. We were foolish to give back as much as we did, because we never could afford the bill."
Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party that has seen its support surge over the past month because it is the only significant party opposing the treaty, said neither outcome _ yes or no _ would "straighten out this mess."
"But a strong `no' vote, or indeed a victory for the `no' vote, will set a different direction for this government and will send a very, very clear signal that this state joins with people in France and Germany and Greece and right across the European Union in demanding an end to austerity," Adams told Associated Press Television as he cast his ballot in the border county of Louth nearest his home in the British territory of Northern Ireland.
"This treaty will perpetuate and institutionalize austerity. We need people back to work, we need incentives to get people back to work, we need stimulus of the economy as opposed to cuts," he said.
All opinion polls in the past month's campaigning suggest that a majority will vote for the tougher budget discipline, but similar polls were proved wrong when Ireland voted to reject the EU's last two treaties in 2001 and 2008. Ireland is the only nation among the 25 requiring a national vote for ratification, although the treaty does not require Irish approval to proceed elsewhere. Results come Friday.
A "yes" verdict would have no immediate impact on Irish austerity policies, because Ireland already is committed to a severe program of cuts, tax hikes and asset selloffs as part of its 2010 EU-International Monetary Fund bailout.
A "no" could do most damage to Ireland itself, because its existing loans will run dry by the end of 2013 _ and the treaty reserves the EU's future rescue fund to those nations that accept the new budget rules. But analysts agree a "no" from Ireland _ the only member of 25 signatories willing to test public opinion on the issue _ would rattle a eurozone already doubtful it can confine its debt crisis to the three bailed-out countries of Ireland, Greece and Portugal.
Ireland has posted the worst deficits in the EU for the past three years: 14.3 percent of gross domestic product in 2009, an EU-record 32.4 percent in 2010 and 13.1 percent last year. The appalling figures chiefly reflect Ireland's much-rued decision to try to stop Europe's worst banking crisis by nationalizing tens of billions' worth of toxic property debts. The costs proved too great for Ireland, savaging its credit ratings and forcing the EU-IMF to intervene.
Only when Ireland gets its deficit back down below 3 percent in 2015 or 2016, the key goal tied to existing EU-IMF aid, would the new treaty's tougher limit of 0.5 percent of GDP come into play and, potentially, extend Irish austerity to the end of the decade.
The Irish leader, Kenny, warned throughout the campaign that a "no" outcome would lead to further Irish credit-risk downgrades, make a second IMF-led bailout in 2013 the only plausible alternative to avoid a national default, and require even harsher austerity moves in 2013 and 2014 because Ireland no longer would be able to borrow from the EU.
Ireland's anti-treaty forces long have demanded write-downs on the remaining debt liabilities of Ireland's six banks, five of which have been nationalized and seen their biggest toxic debts transferred to two new state-run "bad banks."
State-guaranteed repayments to international bondholders of Ireland's most recklessly managed lender, the defunct Anglo Irish Bank, are expected to cost taxpayers (EURO)47 billion ($59 billion) by the time the last IOU is cleared in 2031. On Wednesday the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, Matthew Elderfield, said Ireland's total bank-bailout bill might need to rise an additional (EURO)4 billion ($5 billion) to (EURO)68 billion ($85 billion) _ a sum equivalent to around (EURO)19,000 ($24,000) per man, woman and child in Ireland.
Anti-treaty Irish pressure group, http://www.libertas.ie/
Pro-treaty Irish think tank, http://bit.ly/JwWvVO