Hard-fought campaigns well matched in intensity

Wed, May 30, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:VOTERS NOW have 24 hours to pause for reflection before deciding on the fiscal treaty after one of the most hard-fought referendum campaigns in living memory.

The Yes and No campaigns have matched each other for intensity over the past six weeks, with the result that there has been no evidence of a decisive shift in public opinion in the course of the campaign as undecided voters gradually made up their minds.

The Coalition knew it would have a serious fight on its hands to persuade the Irish public to back the treaty, and has waged probably the strongest campaign by any government on Europe since the original decision to join in 1972.

From the start, the Taoiseach and his Ministers were keenly aware that the treaty could face rejection from a public disillusioned by the ongoing need for cuts in public spending and new forms of taxation.

In the past, referendums have been lost when a significant proportion of the electorate opted to ignore the actual question in front of them and instead vented their frustration about issues that had little or nothing to do with the constitutional change under discussion.

The Government’s efforts to keep the issue focused on the treaty itself and the implications of a rejection has been helped by the strong and coherent support for the Yes case provided by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin as well as the array of civic society forces who have been campaigning in favour of the treaty.

The No side has also fought hard every inch of the way sensing that there is a real chance of not only defeating the Government but of creating an international impact by persuading the Irish people to reject the treaty.

Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance have spearheaded the No campaign and both have campaigned effectively with daily press conferences, extensive postering and a strong media presence.

The McKenna judgment, which obliged broadcasters to give equal time to both sides, has helped to raise the profile of those campaigning for a No and they have had some success in trying to define the issue as a vote for or against austerity.

The arrival of Declan Ganley on the scene with his postering campaign and Shane Ross’s decision to get off the fence and call for a No vote helped generate more publicity for the anti-treaty forces as the campaign entered its final stages.

While there were a number of television debates, Taoiseach Enda Kenny took the decision to stay out of them and focus his attention on campaigning up and down the country. While he has faced some media criticism for that decision, the outcome of the referendum will tell whether he was right or wrong. Some of the shambolic television debates certainly did nothing to illuminate the nature of the choice facing the Irish people tomorrow.

As for the issues, the Taoiseach summarised the Yes campaign neatly on Monday by boiling it down to three fundamentals. He called on people to vote Yes to ensure access to a future bailout fund if needed, to protect the euro with new budgetary rules and to ensure the flow of foreign direct investment and jobs into the country.

The No campaign disputed all three assertions and has insisted throughout the campaign that a No vote would not prevent the State from accessing the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) if it is needed after the current bailout fund expires in the middle of next year.

There has been heated controversy on this issue with the two sides baldly contradicting each other about the precise implications of a No vote.

While the Referendum Commission and the High Court judge who chairs it, Kevin Feeney, have stated unequivocally that the country will be denied access to ESM funding if we do not ratify the treaty, their views were batted aside by Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, who has continued to insist that funding will be available in the event of a No vote.

The fact that the fiscal treaty will come into effect whether Ireland ratifies it or not has been an important issue in the campaign. It will take just 12 of the 17 euro zone countries to ratify for it to come into effect and as that looks certain, an Irish No will not derail the treaty.

In the referendums on the Nice and Lisbon treaties, one of the key No arguments was that an Irish rejection would prevent the treaties in question coming into effect as they required ratification by all 27 EU states. The absence of that argument this time around could be crucial.

International events have also had an impact on the campaign. The unfolding Greek drama has sent mixed messages to the Irish campaigners. On the one hand, the victory for the anti-treaty forces in Greece and the failure to form a government there came as a heartening morale boost to the No campaign here. On the other hand, the focus on the real hardship now afflicting Greece and the prospect of the country having to exit the euro has also served as a warning that the Yes side has been able to use in the campaign.

The election victory of François Hollande in France was also interpreted differently by each side. The No campaign put it down to a defeat for austerity while the Government insisted that it only reinforced their arguments in favour of a growth strategy at EU level.

What did become clear at the EU summit last week was that Hollande has no intention of seeking to open up the terms of the existing treaty for further debate. What he wants is for it to be accompanied by a growth strategy. Those who argued for a postponement of the referendum on the basis that the treaty could be changed have had their case undermined by the summit outcome.

However, most No campaigners had never argued for a postponement, believing that the momentum is with them to defeat the treaty now.

Whether it will be a Yes or a No tomorrow depends on whom the majority choose to believe. The arguments have been laid out clearly and voters can’t say they have not been given enough information this time around.

The Government decision to send the treaty to every household was vital. Along with the Referendum Commission booklet arriving through every letterbox it meant lack of information was certainly not a problem.

Stephen Collins is political editor

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