Irish set for EU treaty talks with Sarkozy amid protests

Protestors were making their way to central Dublin Monday, before the arrival of French President Nicolas Sarkozy on a visit to discuss Ireland's rejection of the European Union's Lisbon Treaty with Prime Minister Brian Cowen, reported .

The four-hour visit has been dogged by controversy since Sarkozy privately told members of his Union for a Popular Movement Party (UMP) this week that "the Irish must vote again."

Voters in Ireland rejected the treaty to streamline the EU in a referendum June 12.

Sarkozy, who is to be accompanied by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, is set to have lunch with Cowen at Government Buildings. France currently holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency.

Playing down the fuss over Sarkozy's remarks, Cowen said the meeting would centre on determining how Ireland could proceed in a way that respects the outcome of the Lisbon referendum without bringing the EU reform process to an end.

However, the Irish Independent newspaper reported Monday that Cowen would warn the French president he was "swelling the ranks" of the no campaign every time he intervened.

A "no means no" protest organized by the anti-treaty group, People Before Profit Alliance, was to be held outside Government Buildings as Sarkozy was due to arrive.

Irish Farmers' Association President Padraig Walshe was to lead a farmers' protest at noon.

Walshe, who is part of a group due to meet Sarkozy later Monday, said he would warn the French president that if the World Trade Organization deal currently on the table in Geneva went ahead, it would "profoundly damage support in rural Ireland for any future Lisbon referendum."

After his meeting with Cowen, Sarkozy is due to meet with representatives of the yes and no sides at the French embassy.

The arrangements for the meeting at the embassy have caused a row over the fact that opposition Labour Party and Fine Gael leaders have not been invited to hold separate meetings with Sarkozy, but to join representatives of at least 16 other groups at the round-table meeting.

Plans to hold the meeting in a public forum were scrapped, reportedly owing to the reservations of French officials, leading one Irish analyst to describe the holding of the meeting at the French embassy as a "Cold War tactic" of meeting "dissidents on home ground."

According to Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore, who declined the invitation to attend, the proposed format of the meeting was "pointless" as it would allow each person to make a three-minute presentation to Sarkozy,

"This kind of idea that President Sarkozy can come to Ireland and persuade us to change our mind to try and hear what we have to say and give us all three minutes each - I think there is a little degree of arrogance in that," he told Irish national broadcaster RTE.

Although it was still unclear whether Gilmore would attend, RTE reported early Monday that last-minute arrangements had been made to enable Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and Gilmore to hold one-to-one meetings with Sarkozy ahead of the French embassy meeting.

A representative of Sinn Fein, the only Irish parliamentary party to campaign for a no vote, said the party was "reluctantly" taking part in the round-table meeting.

Declan Ganley, the leader of Libertas, which spearheaded the no campaign in Ireland, also accepted an invitation to the meeting at the French embassy.

The treaty requires the approval of all 27 EU member states before it can be ratified.

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