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As Ireland votes on EU treaty, many ask if it's worth cost of membership (+video)

The strict rules of the EU fiscal treaty Ireland votes on today essentially block stimulus spending, and many Irish worry the country is stuck in an austerity-driven slump.

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On the right, businessman Declan Ganley, who was prominent in opposing the EU's Lisbon treaty in 2008 and 2009, says EU policy is exacerbating Ireland's economic woes by forcing taxpayers to borrow money to pay the debts of failing banks. "If Europe wants to continue a policy of 'picking winners' by bailing out the biggest losers, that's their business, but the Irish taxpayer shouldn't pay a disproportionate amount of it," he says.

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Mr. Ganley advocates increased European federalism and is campaigning for a "no" vote  on the basis that banks should be allowed to fail. "It's about whether or not Ireland has any chance of recovery," he says. 

Banking has been at the center of Ireland's property lending-fueled rise, as well as the subsequent crash in public finances.

In 2008, all deposits and funding bonds in Irish banks were guaranteed by the government. A year later, Anglo-Irish Bank and the Irish Nationwide Building Society were taken over by the state because they were unable to meet their debt obligations, primarily in real estate loans, putting taxpayers on the hook when it came to paying back the bondholders.

Later in 2008, the two largest banks in the country, Allied Irish Banks and Bank of Ireland, were also partly nationalized and, in 2009, each received 3.5 billion euro recapitalization payments from the state. By 2010, the cost to the state was too onerous, and the country entered the EU-ECB-IMF bailout program that has since defined its economic policy.

Distracted voters 

Public opinion is divided, but to say the treaty is not the main issue in people's minds is an understatement. Despite wall-to-wall media coverage, public enthusiasm is low, prompting some Irish politicians to openly express fears of low turnout. Opinion polls indicate a win for the "yes" side, but up to 22 percent of eligible voters polled said they were still unsure just days before the vote. 

Kevin Costello, a store owner from Nenagh, County Tipperary in the rural south of Ireland, says that he considered rejecting the treaty, but in the end he will be voting "yes."

"We can't live beyond our means," he says. "That's just common sense. I know from the shop – when your outgoings are so much greater than your incomings, you're in trouble." 

Instead of the treaty, most attention is focused on the real economy. One point all agree on is that more money needs to be circulating.  

"We opened the shop here 20 years ago and you can really see things have changed. The local economy benefited from the boom. Now we need to have people spending money again," says Mr. Costello. 

"With a lack of investment and a lack of confidence, that's never going to happen."

Angela Nagle contributed reporting.


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