DUBLIN, Ireland -- Today the Irish people vote on the Maastricht treaty of European union -- and on their past, their future, their national dignity, as some perceive it, and on the fate of the unborn Irish child.
They have made the referendum to rescue the Maastricht Treaty, following its defeat June 2 by the Danes, a bigger thing than anyone ever intended.
They have invested it with their anxieties over matters apparently far removed from the question at hand. They have been obsessed with it.
On Tuesday, a man devastated by beer slouched in a hotel bar on O'Connell Street, wavering in his chair, and drawing stares from the waiters and patrons, nearly all French, German and American tourists.
As he was being eased out by the doorman, he suddenly turned and shouted: "Vote no to Maastricht!"
Prime Minister Albert Reynolds and the leaders of the four major political parties say they are confident that the treaty will be approved. The last poll, published yesterday, indicated that 49 percent would vote yes, 28 percent no.
But Mr. Reynolds is nervous. Opposition has been growing. To stem it, he has become heavy-handed. Tuesday night he commandeered time from Irish television to tell the nation that if the treaty is defeated Ireland would lose jobs, pots of money from the European Community (EC) and foreign investments. They would be ostracized in Europe.
He attacked the opponents of the treaty for spreading "myths and rumors." Then he allowed them no television time to respond.
Thus, he might have made the same mistake the leaders of Denmark made.
They, too, tried to frighten their people into supporting the treaty, which is designed to move the 12-nation EC toward monetary union and a single currency by the end of the century, equalize to a great degree the level of prosperity throughout Europe, and, among other things, work toward common EC political and defense postures.
The Danes rejected it. But it wasn't just a reaction to perceived government bullying. They were apprehensive over the way power seems to be gravitating toward the EC headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, a process particularly unsettling to a small state like Denmark, or Ireland.
The Irish establishment, excluding the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which has its own agenda, has argued consistently that Ireland has benefited enormously from membership in the EC.
This establishment consists of the government, the larger political parties, the richer banks, industries and the farm sector. Farmers in particular have been enriched by EC funds.
How much has Ireland got? According to the government, about $30 billion since the nation joined in 1972.
"It's not a question of how much money Ireland gets. It is who gets it," said Rita O'Hare, editor of Republican News. "It doesn't help much if it goes into the pockets of big business."
Ms. O'Hare pointed out that at the time Ireland entered, EC unemployment stood at about 9 percent. Now it is at 20 percent. Much of it, she believes, is the result of exploitation by larger EC countries.
"Ireland, I'm afraid, is always going to be here for the benefit of some other countries," she said. "Maastricht is a military union. It will end Ireland's neutrality."
Ms. O'Hare speaks for a politically outer segment of Irish society, one of undetermined size. This is the republican movement, which devotes most of its energies to removing the British from Northern Ireland. But these people, and others in the lower economic echelons, have been the most questioning about the treaty, the most resentful toward efforts to rush it through.
They form an odd alliance of opposition with other groups with utterly different aspirations. These are the anti-abortion groups which fear the treaty will make the more progressive continental social law preeminent in Ireland, and some pro-abortionists who want to defeat the treaty because of the protocol attached to it surreptitiously by the previous Irish government.
The protocol seeks to defend the existing anti-abortion amendment in Ireland's constitution.
The question of failure is raised by the parliamentarian Pat Rabbitte, of the Democratic Left, another party that opposes the treaty. He speaks of failure of the Irish state and its governments since its founding in 1921; utter failure which the EC has been unable to ameliorate.
His party opposes the treaty for a variety of reasons. But behind it all is a distaste for what he regards as the groveling posture his country has assumed toward its larger and richer partners, and for its seemingly perpetual ineffectualness.
"We never knew about the protocol until the treaty was signed [last December] in Maastricht, [Netherlands]," said Mr. Rabbitte. "The people aren't consulted; the people aren't asked."
Ireland is distinct and apart from Europe. It is that archaic sense of separation that has boiled to the surface here and jarred the usual tranquillity, that feeling of being comfortably a quarter turn out of time with the rest of the world.
Today the Irish must ask themselves what kind of future they want. And then decide.