Politics distorted during referendum campaigns

Sat, May 19, 2012, 01:00

The rules on media space mean Independents and smaller parties get disproportionate attention

THE REFERENDUM Act 1994 stipulates that once an Act providing for an amendment of the Constitution has been passed by the Oireachtas, the Minister for the Environment shall (which means must) make a regulation appointing a polling date for a referendum. Phil Hogan made such a regulation on April 30th, naming Thursday, May 31st, as polling day for the fiscal treaty referendum.

Once the regulation is made, the date of the referendum cannot be changed. There are good reasons for this provision since otherwise any government unhappy with how a referendum campaign had gone could simply pull the plug or push back the date in order to undermine opponents who had planned, campaigned and spent money targeted at the original polling day.

The only exception to the concept of a fixed referendum date is the provision within section 10 of the 1994 Act, which allows for the date to be changed in the unusual scenario where a general election happens to be called before the referendum poll, to enable both to be held on the same date. One would have thought our politicians would know these basic provisions on how our Constitution is amended.

However, this week several Independent TDs, including Shane Ross and Stephen Donnelly, as well as the MEP Marian Harkin, gathered at a press conference to demand that the Government postpone the referendum. They did so knowing that even if it could, the Government would not postpone the vote, and in circumstances where they should have known the option wasn’t legally available.

It smacked of a cynical attempt by this cohort of Independents to garner attention without going over to the No side. They ended up looking silly when the Referendum Commission felt it necessary to issue a statement pointing out the legal situation.

It is easy to appreciate how these Independents got themselves into this predicament. Advocating a No vote has delivered great political rewards for many Independents and smaller parties in previous campaigns. Yes campaigns are always dominated by government politicians, which overcrowds the waiting-room for media coverage on that side.

By comparison, there is lots of media space available for those making the No case. RTÉ and other broadcasters are required, in accordance with the Coughlan judgment, to give equal time to both sides, so smaller parties and Independents get disproportionate attention for a few weeks. While normally attracting about one-fifth of airtime, during referendum campaigns those opposing the proposal must get half.

Paul Murphy inherited Joe Higgins’s seat in the European Parliament last year when the Socialist Party leader returned to the Dáil. At that stage Murphy was Higgins’s adviser in the European Parliament and was relatively unknown outside of the Socialist Party and its associated campaigns. Murphy’s profile has shot up in recent weeks, however, as he has emerged, second only to Sinn Féin speakers, as an articulate advocate for a No vote.

His chances of actually being elected to the European Parliament will also be helped by the fact that his photograph is the most prominent feature on the many posters which the Socialist Party has erected all over the Dublin constituency. Murphy has at least taken a substantial position on how people should vote in the referendum.

Ross, Donnelly, Harkin and others have tried to garner media attention while sitting on the fence. The attraction of the vacant media microphones on the No side must be balanced against the risk of alienating local voters. This is a particular problem for those right-of-centre deputies from constituencies that traditionally produce large Yes votes.

One of those most obviously squeezed between this rock and hard place is Shane Ross. He represents Dublin South, which has always been among the most solidly pro- European constituencies. In the second Lisbon Treaty referendum, it had the strongest Yes vote in the country, at 82 per cent.

Ross has been generally prominent in opposing the EU policy response to the fiscal crisis, and the logic of his argument would put him against the treaty. However, it would place him in company deemed unattractive to his middle-class south Dublin electorate.

Ross’s suggestion that his middle-ground position of calling for postponement is shaped by recent developments in France and Greece is not credible. He sat on the fence on this referendum from the outset. In an extended interview with BBC Radio’s The World Tonight, Ross gave a lengthy critique of the mechanisms in the fiscal treaty before surprising the interviewer by saying he was reserving his position on how people should vote in the referendum.

The top award for garnering personal publicity from this referendum, however, must go to Declan Ganley. Since his last unsuccessful foray into Irish politics, and indeed wider European politics during the 2009 European elections, Ganley, through his Twitter account and otherwise, has been simultaneously a robust critic of the EU’s response and a proponent of a grand scheme for more intensive European fiscal and economic integration. He too, however, reserved his position on the referendum, ultimately declaring his intention to campaign against it with just 10 days to go to polling.

Ganley showed great skill in priming his re-entry to public discourse by means of an exclusive op-ed piece in the Sunday Business Post. Such is the anxiety to meet broadcasting balance requirements, Ganley’s personal view on the treaty, once he had made up his mind, became the first or second item on news programmes from Saturday into Sunday.

It all reflects the extent to which our politics is distorted during referendum campaigns. What, if any, impact it has on the referendum itself remains to be seen.

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