Ireland's government denied Friday that it would stage a second referendum if voters decide this month to reject the European Union fiscal treaty, as has happened the last two times the Irish put a complex EU pact to their people.
Government leaders scrambled to limit damage to their campaign for a yes vote after Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton appeared to suggest that the treaty must be ratified -- even if that meant telling uncooperative Irish voters to try again.
That's exactly what happened when voters rejected the EU's previous two treaties in 2001 and 2008, leading to the widely held view that Irish governments won't take no for an answer when it comes to European accords. On both occasions the government staged second referendums a year later and overturned the initial result.
This time, the EU isn't requiring Ireland to say yes, since this deficit-fighting treaty is designed to become law in approving countries once at least 12 of the treaty's 25 government signatories ratify it through their parliaments. Ireland is the only country subjecting the treaty to a referendum. Previous treaties required unanimous support to become EU law anywhere.
But for the Irish, rejecting the treaty in the May 31 referendum could box the country into a cash-flow crisis. The German-inspired accord bars any anti-treaty countries from tapping the EU's future rescue-loan fund. That clause was designed to ensure all members commit to the treaty's key goal of lowering national deficits to a new tight target of 0.5 percent of economic output. The Irish last year recorded the worst deficit in the eurozone, 13.1 percent, and face several years of deepening austerity.
Ireland hopes to resume normal borrowing on bond markets next year but needs to ensure it can receive a second EU-subsidized bailout deal in 2013 if the markets prove too expensive.
Asked on Ireland's Today FM what the government would do in the event of a majority anti-treaty vote, Bruton said, ""I suppose we will have to say that we will need access to this fund and I think Ireland will be looking to say: Can we vote again? Because we will need access to this fund."
When it was pointed out that he was publicly contemplating a second referendum, Bruton didn't correct the impression.
"I'm saying that we will have a crisis on our hands and we will face a really, really difficult situation in funding ourselves. That's the reality," he said.
Later, Bruton apologized on air. "I'm retracting what I said. ... (The) government has made it clear that there will be no second vote and I just want to clarify that," he said.
On Friday, the government minister leading the pro-treaty campaign, Simon Coveney, said Bruton had been confused and unclear.
"If we decide to vote no, the government won't like that because it makes everybody's job much more difficult, and I think it makes Ireland's challenges more difficult. But we'll have to accept it. It will be a democratic decision and we will have to deal with the consequences," Coveney said.
Left-wing lawmakers campaigning to reject the treaty leaped on Bruton's remarks in hopes of mobilizing voters against both the EU and the perception that Irish governments view referendums -- required under Ireland's neutrality-focused 1937 constitution -- as irritations.
"The intention is clear that if the people vote the wrong way, the government will force the issue again," said Thomas Pringle, an independent lawmaker from Donegal, a rural northwest county where euroskepticism runs high.
However, the latest opinion poll published Friday suggested that the government should be able to prevail the first time around.
The survey of 1,000 people, commissioned by Irish bookmakers Paddy Power and conducted by pollsters Red C, found that 50 percent of registered voters intend to vote yes, 31 percent no. The remaining 19 percent said they weren't sure or wouldn't vote.
Red C said excluding non-voters leaves 62 percent yes, 38 percent no. The survey had a 3 percent error margin, and its results closely follow the results of several other polls this month.
All have given the yes side a significant but not dominant lead, and leave substantial percentages of voters who have yet to make up their minds. Support for the treaty runs highest in the Dublin area, among older voters and the middle class; it runs lowest in the rural west and among younger voters.
Government treaty site, http://www.stabilitytreaty.ie/
Referendum Commission, http://www.referendum2012.ie/
Sinn Fein's anti-treaty campaign, http://www.voteno2012.ie/