Deeper look at poll illuminates complex reasons for result

Sat, Jun 14, 2008, 01:00

LISBON OUTCOME:DESPITE WIDESPREAD support among the Irish public for Ireland's membership of the European Union and even more widespread appreciation of the benefits that have accrued to Ireland from that membership, on Friday 13th of June, 2008 it emerged that the Irish electorate, or more precisely, the 53 per cent of the electorate that voted, had rejected the Treaty of Lisbon (by 53.4 to 46.6) just as they had done in 2001 to the Treaty of Nice. Why?

The Irish Times/TNSmrbi final poll of the campaign proved remarkably accurate both in predicting the final outcome - the poll's projection of the result with about a week to go was 54 No to 46 Yes - and in capturing the ongoing uncertainty in the form of a block of 35 per cent of "don't knows".

Accordingly, although one week old by the time of the vote (a week is a long time in a campaign), the Irish Times poll is a valuable source for analysing what transpired.

Among the myriad of individual reasons underlying the actions of individual voters, two overall categories stand out.

The first was a lack of confidence in people regarding their knowledge of the issues. Those who felt they had some understanding of the issues indicated an intention of voting Yes by a two-to-one ratio.

Among the very substantial proportion that didn't know what the treaty was about, Yes voting fell to one in 10.

Over the course of the campaign, people's knowledge improved by some 10 percentage points. However, this improvement fell far short of the corresponding improvement over the course of the campaign in the second referendum on the Treaty of Nice. In net terms, the improvement, such as it was, left people with somewhat less confidence in their knowledge of the issues at the end of the Lisbon campaign compared to at the end of the first Nice campaign. Given the demonstrable relationship between this variable and people's voting behaviour, this was, for the advocates of a Yes vote, a worrying aspect of the polling evidence on the eve of voting in the Lisbon referendum.

Lack of knowledge may reflect educational differences and related differences in, for example, media usage, and these differences may explain the substantial voting contrasts across the social spectrum. Such contrasts are particularly striking in a political system with almost no class differences between the main parties. However, it is also possible that social class differences in support for the Lisbon Treaty may reflect occupation-related differences in exposure to and vulnerability in the face of globalisation.

Even a brief review of the constituencies confirms that occupational differences combined with urban-rural differences to produce considerable socio-demographic contrasts in support/opposition to the treaty.

A second major set of reasons for voting No, as revealed by an open-ended question, was categorised in the Irish Times/TNSmrbi poll as "to keep Ireland's power and identity". The incidence of this kind of response increased significantly over the course of the campaign (from 16 to 24 per cent), an increase that put it marginally ahead of neutrality and may have reflected growing concern with the proposed rotation of membership of the European Commission.

The significance of identity as a factor in all of this is highlighted by the results of a recent (spring 2007) Eurobarometer survey which asked: "In the near future do you see yourself as Irish only, Irish and European, European and Irish, or European only?". Taking "Irish only" as the crucial indicator, it is apparent from the accompanying bar chart that Ireland occupies quite an extreme position on this dimension. Some 59 per cent - second only to Britain and followed by the three Baltic states - rejected the proffered degrees of European identity and opted for an exclusive Irish identity. Interestingly, the other end of the scale is occupied by five of the six founding members of the EEC/EU (France, former West Germany, and the Benelux states). From this it is, of course, evident that having a low level of "nationality-only" identity is not a sufficient condition for ratifying EU treaties by referendum - witness the Netherlands and France, both of which rejected more or less the same package of reforms when it was served up in the form of the European constitution. Despite these qualifications, however, it is evident that running an integrationist referendum in a political culture in which almost two-thirds of the electorate feel themselves to belong exclusively to a certain national identity (in this case Irish) is never going to be a walkover.

Mentioning the French and the Dutch referendums is a reminder that Irish voters are not alone in this situation. This is important, with what may or may not be called a (second) "period of reflection" likely to get under way. There will be a temptation to blame the voters - a temptation that should be strongly resisted. Rather, the reasons (and emotions) that lie behind the No vote need to be determined, as well as the way in which the Yes campaign failed to persuade a large swathe of the electorate of the merits of the case for ratification.

The big challenge for the Yes side will be to discover how to manage diverging aspects of Irish political culture (extensively but passively pro-Europe in attitude and mainly exclusively Irish in identity) in a way that persuades the electorate of the merits of further integration. This will raise questions not just for Ireland but for the whole of the European Union as it seeks to develop the democratic dimension of the union, to increase its efficiency and consolidate the legitimacy of the European project. Critical analysis of how proposals for the reform of EU treaties are developed and ratified will be a crucial part of this process. This imperative is not confined to states that are constrained or that choose the route of ratification by referendum. Part of the debate should be about what kind of referendum and in which arena.

Prof Richard Sinnott is director of the Public Opinion and Political Behaviour Research Programme at the UCD Geary Institute and co-author of The Irish Voter (Manchester University Press, 2008)