Much midnight oil is being burned by party strategists on the unionist side over next month's European elections because they know the unionist vote is going to be split three ways.
The issue has nothing to do with Europe. But it has a great deal to do with unionist fears that the split will rob them of their customary top-of-the-poll position.
Who then will speak for Ulster? Quite possibly, within the short space of four weeks, it could be Sinn Fein. It may be sensible for unionists, though, to calm their troubled breasts. I might even venture to suggest, saving their apoplexy, that having Sinn Fein at the top of the poll in an election which is supposed to be about European issues may not prove to be an entirely bad thing.
I say this because Sinn Fein, despite some rather hare-brained economic policies, has at least preserved a sceptical attitude to the Brussels colossus — and is the only party on this island so to do.
As the EU bids to force through the deviously obscure 272 pages of the Lisbon Treaty by holding a second referendum in the Republic this autumn, sceptics are sorely needed.
As for the UK, citizens here are not being afforded the luxury of expressing an opinion at all. The Prime Minister has no intention of holding a referendum on the treaty, although Blair promised to hold one on the original treaty (scrapped when the French and the Dutch voted ‘No') and he ran on that policy in the general election of 2005.
Blair and Brown subsequently changed their minds because they knew they would lose if they dared consult the people on the revised version — which is 90% the same. All of which says something about the nature of Brussels democracy. It can be shockingly cynical.
“Public opinion will be led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly,” said the French ex-President, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who headed the drafting committee. “All the earlier proposals will be in the new text, but will be hidden and disguised ... What was difficult to understand will become utterly incomprehensible ...”
So the obscurity is deliberate. One cannot understand the Lisbon document without having at one's elbow the Maastricht Treaty (1992) and the Treaty of Rome (1957).
The new document merely refers back to article number so and so of these (without quoting it) and inserts an amendment, a deletion or a modifying phrase. As the Belgian Foreign Minister confessed: “The aim of this treaty is to be unreadable. It is a success.”
So the Lisbon Treaty should be regarded with a gimlet eye and every single candidate in the European election should be pressed to lay bare their attitude to it. When the Irish voted ‘No' in the Republic's referendum, the MEPs in Brussels voted 129-499 that the wishes of the Irish should be ignored. So our candidates here who are sitting MEPs have some questions to answer. Did they participate in that vote in the Parliament?
If so, how did they vote? I say that because, far from being the “minor technical drafting treaty” Brown's former Europe minister, William Rammell, MP, would have us believe it is, the document raises the EU on to an entirely new footing.
Under the treaty, the EU will be more like the state the European federalists would like to make it. More than 60 new sectors of legislation will be decided by majority voting where now each member state has a veto or right to opt out. Areas where the veto will be lost include foreign policy, security, energy planning and immigration. But the treaty also contains a buried time bomb in Article 48.
This endows the Council of Ministers with the power to extend — by majority vote — the areas wherein the EU can legislate and make other changes: so voters in the UK and the Republic will be giving a virtual blank cheque to a majority vote of those they cannot elect and whom they cannot dismiss.
To accompany its new status as a virtual European state (the original treaty actually provided for an anthem), the EU is demanding a seat on the UN Security Council — and some cheeky voices are to be heard in Brussels suggesting that the UK should give up its prized permanent seat to make way for it.
In all this, Blair was a pushover. He knew he must soon leave Number Ten and he was keen to ingratiate himself with the European governments he hoped would vote him into the new post of European President he still covets. Bertie Ahern also has his eye on it.
In the coming election, critics of the treaty will, of course, be falsely painted as anti-Europeans. All most are demanding is a more democratic Europe, its servants more accountable to the people. What they object to is not the noble idea of European co-operation.
What they reject is the serfdom which grows from being governed by those they do not elect.