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Dick Roche on Ireland´s Referendum

25th May 2012

Dick Roche is the former Irish Minister for European Affairs and Vice-President of ELDR (European Liberal Democrats).

 Ireland’s Decision on 31st May

The Irish voters will go to the polls on 31 May to decide whether Ireland should ratify the fiscal compact or not. On paper, this should be the easiest referendum to carry for the YES side. But Referenda are odd creatures voters often use them to record their views on issues other than the question put.  

Why Have a Referendum? 

This is not the occasion for a dissertation on Irish constitutional law, however some explanation as to why a referendum is being held on this issue at this time is necessary.

The Irish Constitution is an interesting document drafted in the 1930s when unspeakable things were happening in Europe. The Irish people alone can amend the Constitution. When Ireland joined the then European Common market in 1973 it was first necessary to get the permission of the people by way of referendum to do so. The decision was added to the Constitution

When the Irish government sought to ratify the single European Act its actions were challenged in the Irish Supreme Court. The Court decided in a split decision that ratification of the Act must be by way of a further constitutional amendment.

While in this judgement does not mean that referenda is necessary on every occasion when the union makes an important decision (for example admitting new members to the union does not require a referendum) the decision has led to referenda being held on each new treaty produced by the EU.

One could argue, with some conviction, that the Stability Treaty could be ratified by parliamentary means. However as on previous occasions the advice to Government from the Attorney General was that any government attempt to progress the ratification process by way of legislation would undoubtedly be the subject of a Constitutional challenge and the outcome of a court hearing could not be guaranteed.

In recent years the Irish record on constitutional referenda has been a mixed one.


In June 2001 the Irish people rejected the Nice Treaty. Voter turnout in that referendum was extraordinarily low, 34%. 

The referendum illustrated 3 significant points:

1) The importance of voter turnout

2) The capacity for extraneous issues to enter into and dominate a referendum campaign: the Nice Treaty provided for a series of modest institutional changes in the EU institutional structure to allow for new members. The NO campaign argued untruthfully that ratification of the treaty would inevitably lead to Ireland being forced to join NATO, would significantly undermine Ireland's voting strength and ultimately leave Ireland without a commission member. The arguments while poorly based carried the day.

3) The importance of not taking voters for granted. This is very similar to the position in the Netherlands when they came to vote on the constitutional treaty some years later.

The low turnout was undoubtedly due to lack-lustre campaigning on the YES side.

In contrast, those opposing the Nice treaty mounted in a very vigourous campaign. Their arguments weren’t always honest but they worked! 

Research carried out after the vote found that aabstention, rather than a swing away from Europe was the key feature in the referendum.

A lack of understanding of the treaty rather than opposition to its content was the primary reason for voters abstaining.

A clever slogan used to effect by the no side in the referendum campaign was “If you don't know, vote NO!

Following the rejection the European Council agreed the Seville Declaration, acknowledging Ireland's policy of military neutrality. The Saville decoration was little more than a formula of words but it was sufficient to assuage concerns on the issue of neutrality.

A second referendum was held in October 2002. The Government in addition to mounting a very vigorous campaign incorporated two qualifications in the Constitutional amendment, one requiring the consent of Dáil Eireann for any enhanced cooperation  and another preventing Ireland from joining any EU common defence policy. The second referendum was carried handsomely.  


Ireland also held two referenda on the Lisbon Treaty. In the first Lisbon Treaty referendum held on 12 June 2008 the Lisbon Treaty was defeated by a margin of 53.4% to 46.6%.

 A total of 752,451 people voted in favour of the treaty and 862,415 voted against: abstention was not the issue this time.

The 1st Lisbon Treaty referendum saw the arrival of Libertas a rather shadowy organisation that seemed to have an endless supply of funds allowing it to mount one of the most intensive political campaigns  ever seen in Ireland.

Postering, always a measure of campaign resources in Ireland, by the Libertas organisation virtually equaled the combined level of the major political parties. Questions about the source of the funding have never been adequately answered. 

 Libertas, the Peace & Neutrality Alliance and COIR a rather sinister right-wing Catholic youth group had a heyday with the Lisbon Treaty and its notoriously tortured text. Even though the YES side mounted a vigorous campaign it was always on the back foot because of the very convoluted nature of the treaty itself which was skillfully exploited by the NO side.

The Referendum defeat was again followed by a period of intensive research by the government. This research isolated the issues that concerned to the voters. Armed with the research findings the Government entered discussions with European colleagues. These discussions resulted in a series of guarantees crafted to address the concerns that have been identified.

While the research, studies & negotiations were underway economic and political background was shifting dramatically. The world was a different place when Ireland came to vote a second time.

The world economic downturn impacted disproportionately heavily on Ireland, one of the world's most open economies & an economy in which most export to prosper. The credit crunch brought Ireland’s period of frenetic building activity to a shuddering halt. Unemployment that had been virtually non-existent rocketed, particularly in the building & construction industry.

The government tax take plunged and public expenditure was rapidly inflated as tens of thousands of workers initially in building and construction but later in other parts of the economy moved out of employment onto welfare.

 The coup de grace to the Celtic Tiger was delivered in September 2008 when it was revealed that the Irish banking system was on the point of collapse.

By the time Ireland came to vote again on Lisbon the banks were on a life support system from the ECB, companies were collapsing and employment contracting: Ireland was a very changed place.

The second Lisbon Treaty referendum was carried by a two-to-one majority - a 20% swing towards the YES side since the first Lisbon referendum.

The turnout in the referendum was 58 percent, the highest in a European referendum since the original vote on joining the then EEC in 1972.

The margin victory for the YES vote, 67.1% to 32.9%, with only two of the 43 constituencies voting against the Treaty was conclusive.

It's a moot point as to whether the Irish voters have come to love the Lisbon Treaty any more than they had when they 1st voted on it or whether they had just come to realise on which side their bread was buttered: this was not a time for defiant gestures.

Factors Favour a YES Vote 

As mentioned already, on paper, this should be the easiest referendum for the Irish government  and the YES side to carry. 

The cards seem to be strongly stacked in favour of a YES vote.

With the exception of Sinn Fein all of the major political parties are speaking unequivocally in favour of a YES vote.

A degree of ambivalence amongst leading opposition parties who were ostensibly on the YES side during Lisbon 1 is not present on this occasion.

Fianna Fail, the Government party at the time of Lisbon 1&2 is giving very strong support to the government YES campaign from the opposition benches.

The Government parties Fine Gael  & Labour are running strong campaigns: the polls show that FG voters in particular are following the party line. 

If these three parties get their core voters out the YES side will have a natural majority.

The YES campaign is also receiving very active support from the major business and farming organizations: the latter played ‘hard to get’ on Lisbon 1, not so this time.

The trade unions are as always ‘luke warm’ with some of the UK based Unions as always on the NO side.  On the NO side the organisations opposing the treaty are less well funded than was the case in Lisbon 1 & Lisbon II when a huge amount of money flowed into the NO campaigns. Libertas is putting up eye-catching posters but does not have anything like its Lisbon 1 campaign operation. COIR seems absent.

Another major advantage from the point of view of the YES vote is the relative clarity of the treaty itself. The Treaty is far shorter then Lisbon is less complex: its readable.

 This time Irish voters need not get a second chance: there need be no second vote.  Unlike other treaties, this treaty will be ratified with or without the acquiescence of Irish voters. Ratification of the treaty only requires the agreement of 12 Member States.

(Last week the Irish Minister Richard Bruton made a very fundamental error by suggesting that if there were a NO vote on 31st May there could be a 2nd vote later. Quite what he was thinking about is hard to fathom as a core feature of the government's referendum campaign has been to make it clear that there will be no 2nd chance on this occasion. )

Another important point is that the hubris, which existed in Ireland at the time of the 1st Lisbon referendum, is now a thing of the past. A mixture of anger and concern has replaced it.

One of the extraordinary changes, which came about during the highpoint of the Celtic Tiger era, was that many people felt that Ireland perhaps didn't need Europe as much as it had in the past. This delusion has disappeared. The position in which we find ourselves as a nation is well understood by most people.

The choice facing the voters of Ireland is a stark one, sign up for the treaty and be assured of EU future financial support or reject it and take your chances in some very choppy economic waters.

The economic argument could be a double edged sword.

The austerity measures are unpopular not only because of the impositions that they make on the citizens of the union but they have also raise fundamental questions about fairness and equity across large swathes of the population.

It is not only those on the left who question the view that Europe can cut its way out of recession.

In addition voters recall being told by the current government parties before the last election that bondholders would have to share the burden but this has not happened. Far from delivering on pre election promises to ‘burn the bondholders’ the Government has paid out billions to the same bondholders. Additionally, many otherwise ardent supporters of the European project see the fiscal compact as a product of Franco German hegemony. 

While the hubris of the Celtic Tiger era has gone it has been replaced by simmering anger.  All over Europe voters are angry. 

Eleven governments have fallen since the crisis began.

When the voters are angry it makes campaigning difficult for incumbent political parties & from mainstream parties. Angry voters are particularly problematic in referenda. 

What the Polls Tell Us

There has been a substantial amount of opinion polling. Because the different polling organizations adopt slightly different approaches in collecting and interpreting data  comparisons between different poll series carry a health warning.

The Red C polling company, commissioned by the Sunday Business Post newspaper has conducted an extensive series of polls.

The 1st poll in the Red C/Sunday Business Post series was published on 29 January.

This found 40% of respondents in favour of a YES vote, 36% NO & 24% in the don't-know category. The 2nd poll in this series was published on Sunday 4th march. This recorded in an increase of 4 points on the YES vote and a significant decline of 7 points in the NO vote.

The figures were YES 44% , NO 29% & don't know 26%.

A 3rd poll in this series was published on Sunday 25th March. This contained what seems to be some very good news for the YES campaign. 49% of respondents indicated that they would vote YES 33% suggested they would vote NO while 18% recorded a don't know.

A further poll in the RedC/SBP series published onSunday 29th of April showed the YES vote falling back 2 points to 47%, the NO vote rising to 35%, up 2 points and undecided stuck at 18%.

A 5th poll in the Rseries was published on 13th May had more good news for the YES side: 53% YES, 31% NO and 16% ‘don’t know’.

The latest Red C poll, which appeared on 18th May, commissioned by the bookies Paddy Power Ltd.

This shows the YES vote down from 53% to 50% with the NO vote unchanged at 31% and the percentage of voters still undecided rising from 16% to 19%.

On the basis of the RedC polls the campaign looks won by the YES side – although there is still a nagging ‘don’t know’ figure: these may be abstainers who do not want to divulge their intentions.

Other poll results are more mixed.

Opinion polls commissioned from Millward Browne by the Independent newspaper recorded significantly different figures and then those in the Red C surveys.

A poll commissioned for the Sunday Independent from Millward Brown in March recorded 37%  YES, 26% NO, 15% recording a don't know and a fourth group of 21% in a “depends” group.

A 17th May poll commissioned by the Irish Independent newspaper from Millward Brown recorded an even more volatile situation with 37% , YES 24% NO a very significant 35% in the dont know category with 4% of respondents indicating that they would not vote.

An Irish Times IPSOS/MRBI published on 18 April again suggested a very volatile position existing as at that time with 30% recording a YES vote, 23% recording a NO vote, a staggering 39% in the don't-know category with a further 8% of respondents indicating that they would not vote.

 The Sunday Times (Irish edition) published a poll commissioned from Behaviour & Attitudes on 22nd April recording 42% favouring a yes vote 27% a no vote and 31% with no opinion or don't know. 

It looks like a YES but its not won yet 

Overall the polling figures are being interpreted as positive for the YES side however there is still a considerable amount of volatility within the system. 
The relatively high number of “don't know” voters at this late stage suggests that there is no room for complacency on the YES side.

If the major parties on the YES side “get the vote out" the referendum will be carried on the basis of the opinion poll figures. A small turnout could be disastrous. If there is a significant abstention it will have a disproportionate impact on the YES side.

Those who have made their minds up to vote NO will turn out and a low poll will, therefore, favour the NO vote. With a little over a week left in the referendum campaign things look positive for the YES side. However a week is a long time in politics and referenda are very strange and unpredictable animals.




Polling agency

Sample size











18th May,2012

Paddy Power

Red C





17 May 2012[23]

Irish Independent

Millward Brown Lansdowne




35% (plus 4% 'will not vote')

13 May 2012[24]

The Sunday Business Post (SBP)






29 April 2012[25]

The Sunday Business Post






22 April 2012[26]

The Sunday Times

Behaviour and Attitudes





19 April 2012[27]

The Irish Times

Ipsos MRBI




39% (plus 8% 'will not vote')

25 March 2012[28]

The Sunday Business Post






4 March  2012


The Sunday Business Post






4 March 2012

Sunday Indepo.

Millward Brown Lansdowne




15% (plus 21% 'depends')

29 January 2012

The Sunday Business Post








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