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The people of Ireland go to the polls tomorrow. They're voting on a treaty that would require eurozone countries to undergo more budgetary belt tightening. Two years ago, Ireland went bust and had to be bailed out. Tomorrow's vote marks the latest debate over austerity in Europe, although the fate of this latest treaty does not stand or fall on Ireland's vote. Many are seeing the referendum as crucial to Ireland's relationship with Europe. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: A spring morning begins in Dublin, Ireland's bustling capital. Siobhan O'Donoghue is handing out leaflets to anyone who'll take them. O'Donoghue is a community worker, not a politician. Yet these are tough times in Ireland. She feels she must get involved.
SIOBHAN O'DONOGHUE: I feel very strongly that when I look back in history and my children are asking me, what did you do, Mommy, during the Great Recession? I don't want to be saying I observed from the sidelines, and that I allowed people to make decisions in my name.
REEVES: O'Donoghue's standing outside Ireland's parliament. She's stopping passers-by and urging them to vote no in tomorrow's referendum.
O'DONOGHUE: What we're doing is sending out a very clear message and standing in solidarity with the rising momentum against austerity across Europe.
REEVES: Europe's peoples are losing faith in austerity. Ireland is locked into a program of cuts and tax hikes, imposed by the EU and IMF in return for more than $100 billion bailout. O'Donoghue thinks that program is making matters worse. She hopes a no vote will produce a second referendum and a better deal.
Tomorrow's vote is about ratifying a new European treaty. The treaty requires the 17 nations using the euro as a currency to abide by strict budgetary rules. It's supposed to head off the potentially catastrophic eurozone debt crisis.
The Irish haven't suffered as badly from that crisis as the Greeks. But they have endured much misery. Fortunes swiftly made in the Boom Years have been lost, just as swiftly. Young Irish are heading for the airport, migrating en masse because there's just no work at home. They leave behind parents with shrinking pay and pensions and a growing fear about the future.
PRIME MINISTER ENDA KENNY: Ladies and gentlemen, these are turbulent times for Ireland's economy and for the eurozone. To quote Churchill, however, kites fly highest against the wind.
REEVES: Ireland's Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, is at the forefront of the campaign for a yes vote. He spoke the other day at a Bloomberg conference in Dublin. Rejecting the treaty would jeopardize Ireland's access to more rescue funds, he said, and drive away foreign investors. The treaty would force Europe's nations to keep their books in order.
KENNY: ...and this will ensure that no future government, here or elsewhere in Europe, will be able to behave recklessly or arrogantly, or misuse the people's money for reckless behavior as governments.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Austerity for us. Prosperity for others. Rise up and take our country back, you sisters and you brothers.
REEVES: Four years after its economy crashed, anger and impatience are growing in Ireland. The contours of the argument are hardening into one in which austerity and growth are seen as opposites.
COLM MCCARTHY: Growth is not a policy, it's an aspiration.
REEVES: That's Professor Colm McCarthy of University College Dublin.
MCCARTHY: People are talking about growth as a policy that is an alternative to budget tightening, as if economic growth is something that happens because governments announce that it's a good thing and it ought to happen.
REEVES: Polls suggest Ireland's referendum should pass easily. But many haven't yet decided how to vote. The no camp includes some big hitters.
GERRY ADAMS: This is a bad treaty. There's no social or economic merit in it, there's no stimulus in it to get people back to work, and it perpetuates austerity.
REEVES: That's Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein. For years, Sinn Fein had sparse support in Ireland. People were uneasy about its involvement in the Northern Ireland conflict and particularly its links with the Irish Republican Army. Peacemaking and government in the north have improved its image. In the south, its popularity's soared. The left-wing Sinn Fein is now Ireland's second most popular party.
SIMON KELLY: I would sooner be a small nimble independent state in the world, trying to trade with everyone in the world, as opposed to being stuck in a European bloc, controlled obviously in Berlin and Paris. We become like Montana in America.
REEVES: Simon Kelly is among those hoping the referendum will not pass. His family property business used to be worth well over one billion dollars. It went broke thanks to Ireland's property crash and so did he. This hasn't dented his optimism.
KELLY: I think I can save myself. I am hoping I can. I mean it's distressing, financially everything's wiped out, but you get up and you move on.
REEVES: Kelly believes these days, he and Ireland are better off going it alone.
Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.