On top of that, Kenny does not have to contend with the problem that his predecessor Brian Cowen had in regard to the 2008 referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The rejection of the treaty back then was largely intended to teach the then-government a lesson for plunging the country into its serious financial crisis. Kenny, however, has not been in office very long, his conservative Fine Gael governs in a grand coalition with the center-left Labour Party and has the backing of the population. A "no" in the referendum would be a vote of no confidence which could, in the worst-case scenario, lead to new elections. Few people in Ireland are likely to want that.
For weeks now, negotiators in Brussels have been tweaking the language of the fiscal treaty in order to make it more certain of surviving any referendum. Just last week, Michael Link, Germany's state secretary for European affairs in the Foreign Ministry, confirmed that the treaty was being constructed in a cautious enough way that a referendum could be avoided.
"We are trying to design everything that is on the table in a way which would be okay in the eyes of the attorney general and the Irish Constitution so that no referendum is needed," he said. But earlier this week, the Irish attorney general advised Kenny "on balance" that a referendum would be required in order to ratify the treaty.
The attorney general's advice gave Kenny an excuse to take the step. Politically, he had no alternative. The opposition party Sinn Fein had announced it would take legal action in the event that the government avoided holding a referendum. And Ireland's Supreme Court would also have insisted on a plebescite, according to constitutional experts.
With his initiative, Kenny is defusing the accusation that he is afraid of letting voters have a say. In his speech to the Dail, the Irish parliament, the prime minister gave a taste of how he wants to persuade the electorate to vote yes. Ireland has made great strides in the past year, he said, adding that investors have regained confidence again.
"I want that flow of investment to continue and expand," he said. Ratification of the treaty would be "another important step in the rebuilding of both Ireland's economy, and our international reputation." In other words, Ireland can't afford to say no.
Should Ireland vote the other way though, what would a "no" mean for the fiscal pact? It would certainly not be as momentous as the Irish votes against the Nice Treaty in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. The EU treaties require unanimity, making the Irish "no" tantamount to a veto. The fiscal pact, on the other hand, will enter into force once it has been ratified by 12 euro-zone countries. An Irish "no" would not torpedo it.
Nevertheless, if a euro-zone country were to back out of the pact, it would cause uncertainly on the financial markets -- and possibly endanger the whole euro zone. Just the announcement of the referendum was enough to cause the value of the euro to slump. A "no" vote would fundamentally threaten the credibility of the fiscal pact, which many observers already feel is entirely symbolic.
The whole continent now waits on Ireland's every move and see if they either join the others in addressing the flaws in the euro currency or goes its own, uncertain way.