Turnout on Thursday will have big impact on result
The turnaround on Nice had more to do with turnout than any change of mind by single voters
NEXT THURSDAY the Irish electorate goes to vote on a European Union-related issue for the ninth time. They have already been asked to vote on six previous European treaties, including that dealing with our accession.
It is instructive to look at these previous occasions for indicators of how and where turnout and sentiment might impact on the ultimate outcome. Although it is 30 years ago this month since the first such referendum, the contours of the debate around EEC/EU issues and the factors impacting on the outcome have not changed much.
The Irish voters surprised the political establishment in the May 1972 referendum on accession. Most had expected a Yes result, but all were astounded by how emphatic it was at 83 per cent.
The Jack Lynch-led Fianna Fáil government and Liam Cosgrave-led Fine Gael were enthusiastic in support of entry. Both parties had been supportive when Ireland had first applied in the late 1950s, but the Irish application had been collaterally delayed by Charles de Gaulle’s persistent veto on the United Kingdom’s entry.
In 1971 the Labour Party was an anti-European party and with the associated trade union movement had mounted a strong campaign against the accession, so intense in fact that in the early stages it was feared the outcome might be close.
Fianna Fáil’s Paddy Hillery and Fine Gael’s Garret FitzGerald, who were the leading protagonists in the Yes campaign, later separately attributed their success to the overwhelming economic rationale for Irish membership. In those days the government could and did spend money arguing for a Yes vote.
Hillery’s biographer John Walsh observes that while the financial imbalance between the two sides was certainly exacerbated by the government’s money and resources, the divisions within the No camp, the extremist rhetoric used by hardline nationalists on that side and, most significantly, “the inability of the No campaign to provide an alternative to Irish membership” were more significant factors in the outcome.
Once we had joined Irish voters were not directly confronted with a question on our membership of the EU for 15 years.
The Single European Act was the subject of a referendum in Ireland in May 1987. The then FitzGerald-led government had originally planned not to hold a referendum, only to be compelled to do so by the Supreme Court in the Crotty case.
Fianna Fáil was back in power by the time the referendum was held, and, supported enthusiastically by Fine Gael and this time by the Labour Party, the vote was passed 70 per cent to 30 per cent.
There were warning signs for future such referendums, however, in the details of turnout and the poll data on levels of understanding about the Single European Act.
The pollster Jack Jones tells in his memoirs of how the turnout in the Single European Act referendum at 44 per cent was “a massive 29 per cent less than it was in the general election three months earlier”.