04 October 2009

Normal Service Has Been Restored

There was a fabulous post on the Irish Election blog last year analysing six key reasons why Lisbon was voted down last year; today it returned to that post to consider what had changed this time out. It's fascinating reading.

The real question, of course, remains not why did Lisbon pass the second time out, but why did it fail the first time. Lisbon I was a huge anomaly in Irish voting on European matters. Take a look at this chart which shows the proportion of the electorate that has voted yes and no on the eight European referendums we've had.

Look at the No vote, and in particular, look at the No vote since Maastricht in 1992. Barring Lisbon I it's pretty consistent: 17.6%, 21%, 18.5%, 18.3%, 28.3%, 19.3%. It's basically 20%, isn't it, barring Lisbon I, when it rocketed to an anomalous 28.3%. Look at the Yes vote, then: it's all over the place, and is clearly dependent on how many people bother to vote. It was lower than the No vote for Nice I only because the total vote was tiny -- only 35% that time out. On six of the seven times when more than half the electorate has voted on the incorporation of a European Treaty into our Constitution, the positive vote has been far larger than the negative vote.

So what happened at Lisbon I, and what changed it at Lisbon II? Well, Simon says Lisbon I failed for six broad main reasons:
  1. People felt they were being threatened by talk of Ireland being isolated if it voted no; Irish people tend not to take kindly to being bullied.
  2. The leading advocated for the Treaty merely condescended to the people and their opponents, essentially just saying 'trust us'. The posters by the main parties said it all, really. There was no attempt to make a serious case for the treaty.
  3. The main spokespeople for the yes side last time out just weren't up to the job. To this should be added the fact that last time out Fine Gael weren't as ardently European as they'd normally be, largely because they'd been offended by Cowen claiming they weren't playing their part. Again, we're a contrary bunch, and if you try to bully us, we'll usually do the opposite.
  4. Voting no was presented as a pro-European option. I think this was the big one. The day after the vote I had friends vehemently insisting to me that they were very pro-European, despite having voted no. This was new.
  5. Class voting was a factor last time out, with those who felt they've not done as well as they might have from the Celtic Tiger opposing the Treaty. I noticed this a lot working in the pub last summer. There was a smattering of xenophobia, and a fair dose of willingness to believe nonsense about European conscription, but in the main this was effectively just a protest vote against the establishment.
  6. The Treaty itself was a problem, as it was perceived as inpenetrable -- I was the only person I met last year who actually spoke of having read it, and I was in the unusual circumstances of being very interested, very literate, and with a lot of time on my hands. More than 40% of people surveyed after last year's referendum said they'd voted no because they didn't understand the Treaty -- and loads more had voted no because of things that weren't in the Treaty! Given the Treaty's messiness it was very easy for all manner of myths to spread about it, whether about us intermittently losing a commissioner, which was going to happen anyway, or about us losing control of our tax regime, which we retained a veto on!
So what's different? Why did the No vote drop by 9% of the electorate and the Yes vote rise by 15% of the electorate? I think there were three main changes, two positive and one negative.

Broadly speaking, people were better informed this time than last year: there was a serious attempt by the mainstream parties to inform them, various independent groups sprang up to make the case for Lisbon, and the Referendum Commission was rather more vigilant than last year in quashing outright lies about the Treaty.

People also felt reassured by the guarantees from our European partners, promising that abortion in Ireland would remain an Irish competence, promising that our neutrality was our business, promising that our taxes would remain something for us to decide, and -- and this bit was new -- promising that the Council would rule that every country would retain a Commissioner. Granted, the guarantees aren't legally binding yet, but our European partners have been good to us so far, and -- perhaps barring the fishermen in Donegal -- we don't see any reason not to trust them.

The Economy, of course, is the negative factor. What do I mean by a negative factor? Well, I don't really think it drove people to vote yes, despite the Wall Street Journal's spin on this; it wasn't just that Irish people were scared and ran to Mummy. Rather, it was that Irish voters, now reassured by the guarantees and rather more clued in on the Treaty than last year, realised that this was no time for a protest vote. As the Irish Times put it, 'it finally came down to the economy and the ability of voters to distinguish between an unpopular Government and the issue of the treaty. The sophistication of the Irish electorate should never be underestimated.'

In other words, the economy didn't drive people to vote yes, but it did discourage them from voting no for frivolous reasons. If people voted no this time, they did so because they really don't like the Union. Sadly, the number who favour withdrawal seems to have risen from 9% to 18%. That's probably pretty much all the usual crowd, so. Their numbers have been pretty steady for the last twenty years.

Unfortunately, the fact that the Treaty had to be voted on twice has almost certainly caused this development. It hasn't looked good, although we have a long tradition of revisiting issues in referendums, what with the possibility of adopting a first-past-the-post voting system being voted on twice, divorce also being voted on twice, and abortion being voted on three times.

Still, the Constitution has changed now, and anyone who warbles about 'best out of three' might be better off thinking of this as a European tie, where it's one-all, but decided on goal difference, where the Yes Side scored 1,966,719 while the No Side managed a credible 1,457,021. Hmmm. That may not help.

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