ASHBOURNE, Ireland (Reuters) - After seeing the value of her house collapse and her husband lose his job, Sheila McLaughlin would love to vote “No” to Europe’s new fiscal treaty in a referendum on Thursday, dealing a sharp rebuke to a government she says has failed her.
But a chorus of dark warnings that the euro zone crisis could once again engulf Ireland if it thumbs its nose at Europe has convinced her, like tens of thousands of others, to bite her tongue and back the pact for stricter budget discipline.
“People are terrified, you have to just vote ‘Yes’,” she said, standing by the porch of her home in Dublin’s commuter belt, which she says has lost most of its value since she bought it with her builder husband in 2004.
“My heart is saying I should vote ‘No’, but my head is saying ‘Yes.'”
The puncturing of a massive property bubble in 2007 plunged Ireland into the deepest recession in the industrialised world, forcing the former “Celtic Tiger” to seek a humiliating bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
Angry voters ejected the government that presided over those events in elections last February, but a fourth year of prescribed austerity is eating away at support for its successor, whose approval rating has sunk to 27 percent.
But an electorate that sensationally rejected two previous European treaties in referendums in 2001 and 2008 seems to have decided it is not worth taking the risk this time.
A series of opinion polls have indicated the vote is likely to pass by a margin of three to two when undecided voters are excluded. Pollster RED C found narrow majorities in all age groups and social classes questioned.
The two earlier treaties were passed in repeat votes, but this time the government insists there will be no second chance.
Instead it has succeeded in framing the vote around a clause in the treaty that states only those who sign up can access the euro zone’s permanent bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism, warning of unpaid wages and empty bank machines should the pact be rejected.
Ireland’s current bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund expires in 2013, after which it is supposed to return to funding itself via bond markets. But with the euro zone’s debt crisis still far from resolved, it could struggle to borrow at affordable rates even if the treaty is approved, and may need to ask its peers for a second bailout.
“The ‘Yes’ campaign is doing better not because it is campaigning well, but because of the mood of the country - an element of fear of being left on the outside,” said Eoin O‘Malley, a politics lecturer at Dublin City University.
“Irish people are happy that Ireland is not in the news. They don’t want to put it into the news,” he said.
Worries that Greece may leave the euro if a June 17 election produces a government opposed to the terms of that country’s EU/IMF-led bailout have reinforced the anxious tone.
While the treaty needs the approval of only 12 of the 17 euro zone countries to be ratified, a rejection by the Irish - the only nation offered a popular vote on the pact - would undermine Europe’s strategy for overcoming the crisis.
“TERRIBLE PLACE TO BE”
Ashbourne, the town 20 km north of Dublin where McLaughlin lives, has two unfinished “ghost” estates and a new four-star hotel, once franchised as part of the Marriott brand, that was placed into receivership last year.
Many here are bitter that the actions of a handful of bankers and developers have destroyed the economy and that the government has done nothing to punish them, said Joe Bonner, an independent local councillor not campaigning in the referendum.
A clear majority of the hundreds of people he has spoken to in recent weeks were planning to vote yes, but many will do so reluctantly, he said.
“The general feeling is it’s a terrible place to be and it’s not of our making. We worked hard, leaving at 6:30 in morning, paying huge creche costs, huge mortgages,” he said.
“But there is a realisation there also, that to vote against this treaty is not the time.”
Many of those planning to vote “No” say they are doing so as a rebuff to the government and its adherence to the EU-led austerity programme. But some are voting with pangs of nervousness about what a rejection would mean.
“I‘m voting no as a protest and no-one will change my mind, but I do worry about these things,” said Tom Dunne, a 54-year-old who lost his job managing 26 painters during the boom and now spends his days taking care of his grandchildren.
“It may be the wrong way to go. Time will tell,” he said. “I don’t think they (Europe) will let us sink.”
Editing by Catherine Evans