Irish voters reject EU treaty, Cowen seeks to reassure EU

Irish voters rejected the European Union's Lisbon Treaty in a public referendum, official results showed Friday, in a result posing an embarrassment to the government of new Premier Brian Cowen and raising new questions for the EU policymakers...

Referendum Returning Officer Maurice Coughlan announced at the national count centre in Dublin Castle that the combined results from Ireland's 43 constituencies in Thursday's voting showed the no side with 53.4 per cent of the vote and the yes side with 46.6 per cent.

Turnout among the 3.1 million-strong electorate was 53 per cent, leaving a valid poll of 1.6 million.

The final figures showed 862,415 people voted against the treaty aimed at streamlining decision-making in the 27-member bloc while 752,451 people voted in favour.

Ireland was the only EU member to hold a public referendum on the treaty intended to replace the EU constitution, which had been rejected by French and Dutch voters.

As the results were being officially announced at Dublin Castle live on national TV, the 'no' crowd in the hall broke out into prolonged cheering, requiring Coughlan at one point to call for quiet so he could finish making his statement.

Beyond the implications for the EU overall, politicians and analysts in Ireland were looking at what the treaty rejection might portend for the country's domestic political landscape, coming barely a month after Cowen succeeded Bertie Ahern as prime minister.

Cowen, the former finance minister who took the reins on May 7, heads a coalition led by his Fianna Fail party that includes the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats, with the support of independent deputies in parliament.

In a statement Friday evening, Cowen expressed his disappointment at the result while saying that 'the government accepts and respects the will of the Irish people.'

He said the rejection was a 'source of disappointment' to the government and now the task at hand was to 'study implication of the results so we can move forward and keep on the path of progress.'

Cowen said he was aware that his European colleagues would be 'disappointed' at the Irish referendum result, but cautioned, 'we must not rush to conclusions. The Union has been in this situation before and has found a way to move forward.'

He said Dublin would make clear to its European partners that Ireland had no intention of standing in the way of the EU's progress. As a next order of business, Foreign Minister Micheal Martin would be attending the EU foreign ministers meeting on Monday, and he himself would be attending the EU summit at the end of next week.

But he admitted that the 'result does bring about considerable uncertainty,' and that it was a setback for himself.

'I think that clearly we put a position to the people,' he said about the efforts for a yes result. 'I led that campaign and I take responsibility that it was not successful.'

Joe Higgins, a former member of parliament for the Socialist Party, said the vote represents a 'huge rebuff to the Irish political establishment.'

Eamon Gilmore, the leader of Ireland's opposition Labour Party which campaigned for a yes vote, said the 'Lisbon Treaty is now dead' and added that his party would not support putting it to the Irish people again.

Foreign Affairs minister Martin claimed that a lack of information had scuppered the treaty.

Martin, the director of ruling party Fianna Fail's referendum campaign, said: 'People on the doorstep were saying 'I still don't know enough about this treaty'.' He added there was a 'general sense of giving away too much power' and that there were lessons for Europe and Ireland in 'reconnecting' with voters.