Yeah, but no, but yeah, but no

Sat, Apr 28, 2012, 01:00

The battle for the fiscal treaty has begun, but one side hasn’t taken the field yet. The No campaign appears to have skated away with the early momentum, and the Yes side has the jitters, writes KATHY SHERIDAN

LESS THAN FIVE WEEKS out from the referendum, there is little to choose between Vicky Pollard, Little Britain’s teenage delinquent, and the Irish electorate. “Yeah, but no, but yeah, but no . . .”

Gerard Sheehy, a financial-services adviser from Cahir, Co Tipperary, expressed almost exactly this view on Twitter a few nights ago. “Yes, but . . . no, but. That’s where I am at the moment.” Or as David Begg put it this week: “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”

Later, Sheehy tells The Irish Times: “I’m still in a state of complete flummox. As of tonight, I’m voting Yes, but I need some reassurance from the Government that they will be doing everything in their power not to draw down more money, ie, [they should] make more cuts. If they don’t need to borrow more money, then don’t. Your typical household wouldn’t/ shouldn’t do it, so we need to get the national house in order.”

So he’s a “yeah, but no, but” – but for polar-opposite reasons to the No camp as we know it, which reckons it will plunge the country into near permanent austerity.

What’s the mood like in Cahir? “Outside my virtual world – Twitter, etc – there is a sense of apathy. You have to bring it up,” Sheehy says. “The odds on a No vote have shortened from 5/2 to 6/4. Someone thinks that it’s not going to be passed.”

Make that “someone” “a lot”. At a public debate organised by the political cabaret Leviathan at the Sugar Club in Dublin this week, its moderator, Andrea Pappin, asked how many of the 60 or so people present thought the treaty would pass. Six raised their hands. None of the four-person panel did.

“It’s gone,” she says. As a young, driven, pro-Europe activist who has worked at several levels in the system and is a veteran of both the Lisbon and the Nice campaigns, Pappin is no doom-monger. But as she watched the household- and water-charges debacles “limp on and on, you could see them putting the lid on the coffin of the treaty. Not quite the nails but the lid.

“I don’t know who decided the water authority was so urgent it had to be brought in before the referendum. Yes, I know the troika like their timetable, and this is the Usain Bolt of treaties in terms of speed, but that could have been deferred, since the charges aren’t going to come for two years anyway. There are ways of doing these things,” she says, launching into an imaginary, silkily persuasive exchange between Irish officials and troika mandarins.

SO IS IT ALL Phil Hogan’s fault? A senior coalition TD reflects briefly: “Yeah. I think Phil should go to Europe. For good.” By this view, Hogan “has done serious damage. He has been dismissive. He doesn’t understand that it’s about the way you ask, it’s about how you ask. Language is important.”

If the vote had been 10 days ago, it would have passed, says another Government TD. So what has changed? “Well, people are starting to look at what’s going to hurt them.”

Pappin’s novel solution is to put two questions on the ballot paper: 1) Do you just want to give the Government a kick in the pants? 2) Now, how do you feel about the treaty?

In political-science circles in recent weeks, the big debate has been around “the second-order election model”. In simple language, this theorises that all referendums are really plebiscites on government performance. So if this held true, instead of thinking of balanced budgets, voters entering the ballot box this time around would really be voting on the basis of household charges, water charges, septic-tank U-turns, turbary rights – or “turf and toilet, if you want to be unkind”, says Prof Richard Sinnott, associate professor in the department of politics and co-ordinator of the political-behaviour programme at the Geary Institute at University College Dublin. But in fact they won’t, if his graphs showing previous form are a guide.

Of the four Nice and Lisbon referendums, only Lisbon 1, in 2008, shows any correlation between satisfaction with government and the Yes vote. Both were below 50 per cent. But in the other three there was no correlation at all. In Nice 1, when two-thirds of the electorate professed themselves satisfied with government performance, well under half voted Yes. In Nice 2, although government satisfaction had slumped to a third, the Yes vote was up at two-thirds. In Lisbon 2, when government satisfaction had plummeted to a disastrous 13 per cent or so, the Yes vote soared to about 66 per cent.

So is Hogan off the hook if this goes wrong for the Yes side? Sinnott’s graph appears to dispute the second-order election theory, as indeed do the outcomes of the two referendums held last year.

Sinnott also believes it is too soon in the campaign to be getting alarmed about people’s lack of knowledge of the issue. “But it’s not too soon to be getting very alarmed,” he says, about the plunging level of positive sentiment about Europe.

In another graph, an 11-year span shows Ireland’s positive image of Europe spiking at about 70 per cent in 2004. From autumn 2007, there is a gradual decline, up to spring 2011, then a precipitous nosedive to under 40 per cent in autumn 2011.

“For success, you need an underlying stable level of support,” he says. While that support may not cross the line to an outright No vote, it might easily become a stay-at-home vote. And the greatest enemy of the Yes side is apathy.

In Lisbon 1 – won by the No side – nearly half the electorate didn’t vote. In Nice 1, a whopping two-thirds stayed at home. Dig down, however, and you discover that that referendum was lost because far more of the previous Yes voters (from the Amsterdam treaty) stayed at home than the No voters. That 17 per cent turnout differential was by far the largest factor in the losing of Nice 1, says Sinnott.

EXPERIENCED CAMPAIGNERS are in trenchant agreement that referendums are about ideas rather than logic. “It’s a very simple equation,” says Pappin. “Emotion trumps logic. Talk all you want about structural deficits, but people are voting on an idea.” A fine example of this is the Libertas poster that featured in Lisbon 1 of a pitchfork, telling Peter Mandelson, the then EU commissioner, where to shove it.

David Cochrane, who in that campaign worked for Libertas, the effective fulcrum of the No side, and now runs the online forum Politics.ie, says it’s about getting “an emotive response” from people. “You want them to feel good about it.”

Meanwhile, back in this campaign, there is a view that the No side has skated away with the momentum. “Last Sunday, Simon Harris said the Yes campaign hadn’t started yet,” says Cochrane, nodding his head in bafflement. “I thought, Uh oh, alarm bells ringing, brings me right back to Lisbon 1. When one side hasn’t turned up to play the game – that’s the risk. You let the No side out there, setting the terms, they get to do things such as commandeer the language. The Government is calling the treaty one thing, the opposition something else.”

Not many people know this, but the correct title is the Intergovernmental Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union. The Government is calling it the Stability Treaty, which is rather new, since all the commentators up to now have been calling it the Fiscal Compact, with “treaty” an optional extra. In fact, the “fiscal compact” is one provision within the treaty. Meanwhile, the No side has entrenched it as the Austerity Treaty. Everyone knows what that means. It means an instantly recognisable No.

Cochrane points out that in Lisbon 1, Declan Ganley launched the first Libertas poster at the Merrion Hotel in December 2007. That was six months before polling day. “Other organisations were also working away at it for six months – and for the first four to five months, Dick Roche was saying, ‘Sure, the campaign hasn’t even begun.’ ”

Whether this Government should have been forearmed for the Attorney General’s bombshell advice that a referendum was required is a moot point. “In either case, you don’t get to decide when the campaign starts.”

Governments tend to do what campaigners such as Andrea Pappin call the “lather, rinse, repeat, let’s-do-a-leaflet routine – a leaflet that no one will read”. In other words, they’ll do what they always did, regardless of new circumstances. And start as they always started – when the poster and expenditure rules kick in. Meanwhile, debates have already been raging on traditional and online forums.

“We’re five weeks away from the referendum. It’s incredibly complacent,” says Cochrane, who jokes online about Stability Treaty 3. “All you need is a group of people saying, ‘Sure why would you vote yes, sure the French are going to scrap it, let’s wait for all the others to sign up and we’ll sign up then. And sure anyway, we can vote again.’ ”

Naoise Nunn, who also worked for Libertas in two referendums and is a Yes voter (while criticising the austerity policy), says that it’s always easier to persuade people to vote No, “because you can take command of the Don’t Knows too. There is a hard core of 25 per cent who will be against anything to do with Europe, but the more you sow the seeds of doubt, the more of the Don’t Knows you will reel in. On the Yes side are the committed Europhiles, but even they’re not showing any great degree of enthusiasm.”

He is clearly not inspired by the Yes campaign, so far – “but it’s always really hard to campaign in a positive way for something with so many negative implications, when your strongest argument in favour of a Yes is to persuade people how bad things will be if they vote No. You’ve got to present it as a bitter pill, but one that is wise to swallow and that doesn’t have huge effects; that it’s really window dressing to show good faith.” Or, as the Central Bank governor, Patrick Honohan, rather uninspiringly called it, “the safer alternative”.

Cochrane says there is nothing “alien or radical about the concept that a government should only spend the money it has. But that’s how it’s being presented. What panics me is when Ministers come out and say – in the first person – ‘we’ need this treaty so there is no more reckless spending by governments. But this isn’t just about Ireland; it’s about all the other member states too.”

ONE MAN WHO remembers Lisbon 1 with a shudder is Brendan Butler, director of policy at Ibec, the employers’ body, and “a veteran of every referendum known to man”, as one observer put it. “That was the worst, very badly managed. The No side took total control of the issues from the start.” But this one is different, he believes, “not nearly as complex”, and he claims to have no worries about the short lead-in.

“I genuinely believe this will be fought from May 8th, the day after the bank holiday. That’s when it will really kick off. So, effectively it will be a 21-day campaign, and that’s okay. This is not nearly as complex as previous referendums. So far, there are no references to issues that really concerned people in those – such as losing a commissioner, things like the corporation tax rate, conscription, abortion.”

In other words, none of what Garret FitzGerald called the “extreme nitpickers” of the left and right who coalesced on the No side. “What you will see is the Yes side galvanising now. On the political-party side, you’ll see more aggressiveness and big companies coming out.” The danger for the Yes side, he reckons, is “any suggestion that this will solve all our problems, when what should be said is that it’s a necessary and important step, and no more than that.”

An important addendum is that Ibec, like every contributor to this debate, is adamant that there must be a growth treaty in sight as well. “One step on its own is not enough. We see [the growth plan] as vital. People have made enormous sacrifices; they want to see light at the end of the tunnel. The president of the ECB has called for a growth compact in parallel with the fiscal compact. I don’t think it will be in place by May 31st, but there is a push.”

The Government’s big challenge is “to avoid the impression that we’re being threatening or blackmailing,” says Andrew Doyle, Fine Gael TD for Wicklow. “It’s legitimate to ask how foreign investors will perceive Ireland in three years’ time in a different European landscape, but that will be construed as a threat. I’d ask the people who are saying No to outline the landscape if we vote No to this treaty. They’re not telling us the consequences if we are excluded.”

A hint of the promised aggressiveness was evident on Thursday when Eamon Gilmore made reference to Mary Lou McDonald’s “hard neck” and “twisted advice”. “Personal insults”, said McDonald.

Andrea Pappin reckons that the “Michael O’Leary factor” is required – someone who will spell out, in a sentence, why this treaty matters. “Sure, he’s Marmite in Ireland,” she says. You either love him or you hate him. But he could be just the deus ex machina the Government needs.