Polls reflect quiet nature of campaign

Sat, Sep 26, 2009, 01:00

THE DIFFICULTY with putting a lengthy and complex treaty document up before the electorate for a straight Yes or No answer is that it is almost inevitable that peripheral issues or non-issues would impact on the decision.

That is why the suggestion, for example, that the right to life of the unborn or of the terminally ill will be undermined by the passing of the Lisbon Treaty has persisted as an issue in this referendum. The claim still has traction in the campaign not because any basis has been advanced for it but because it has been repeated on a series of increasingly colourful posters.

It seems like the equivalent of what might have happened if posters had appeared three weeks ago threatening that rainfall in Ireland would treble if Lisbon was passed, and if despite the reassurances of politicians, lawyers and meteorologists some still wanted to believe what would have been an absurd claim.

Europe’s leaders have collectively asserted that the treaty has no bearing on issues such as abortion and euthanasia. Here in Ireland all of the leading constitutional lawyers – including Gerard Hogan who Cóir had originally misquoted to support their claim – have confirmed that our laws on these issues will not be impacted by the treaty. Even the Catholic bishops have gone out of their way to clarify that there are no grounds to justify a No vote for religious or ethical reasons.

One can seek to contain the impact of such misleading claims but sometimes one has to accept that there are people who can never be persuaded by rational argument or expert evidence.

The fact that posters still remain one of the main talking points a week before polling day illustrates how quiet this referendum campaign has been.

While activists on both sides have manned their stations in more numbers and with more vigour than on the last occasion, neither side has made up much ground in the campaign itself.

There have been no iconic campaign moments and no dramatic television or radio performances to which one could attribute shifts in support. Even the two high-profile bouts betweens Michael O’Leary and Declan Ganley on Thursday evening, the first broadcast on Today FM and the other on RTÉ’s Prime Timelater that night, failed to live up to expectations.

As macho clashes of ego the O’Leary v Ganley face-offs were very entertaining, but they didn’t advance the argument much on either side. It is indeed depressing to think that the state of our politics and public debate is such that media organisations seeking to attract attention for programming covering the referendum feel they must put these two protagonists on the bill.

The quiet nature of the campaign has been reflected in the absence of significant movement in the polls. At the start of the actual campaigning period the polls showed a wide margin in favour of the treaty. One would have expected this margin to tighten as the campaign progressed. The Irish Times/TNS mrbi poll published yesterday did show a rise in the No vote, but it was only a slight rise of 4 per cent. The Yes vote was also up although at 2 per cent that increase was well within the margin of error. The real comfort for Yes campaigners in yesterday’s poll is the fact that the number of Don’t Knows is so much smaller than it was at this point in the last campaign.

The trend in the polls is supported by anecdotal evidence from those politicians who are actually out canvassing. They say that many voters who loudly complained about the treaty when canvassed before the last referendum are saying that they are voting Yes now. TDs and Senators say they are finding this trend especially in middle-class areas. They describe the mood at these doorsteps as subdued and say that there is little engagement about the content of the treaty but rather a resigned, even a resentful, acceptance of the need to vote Yes.

The enhanced profile which Joe Higgins has enjoyed in this campaign has also raised the profile of workers’ rights as a concern. It is the single issue on which the No side has had most impact. On the other hand, the fact that the main trade unions have been more assertive in their support for the treaty in this campaign than they were last year has benefited the Yes side.

This referendum was always going to be shaped more by the context. Addressing voters’ concerns about the loss of our commissioner and social issues, workers’ rights and neutrality allowed the question to be put a second time with some credibility. However, it is the transformation in our economic situation which looks set to determine the issue. The key achievement of the Yes campaign has been to emphasise the economic implications for Ireland of a second No vote.

The risk for the Yes side going into this campaign was that the No side would manage to leverage public anger and turn this into a referendum on the Government. The evidence in the polls suggests that this has not happened. Even though Libertas and others intend to target the Government and the Taoiseach in particular in the final days of the referendum campaign, they are unlikely to change the pattern. The key portion of the electorate who will determine the outcome appears to have decided the vote is not about the Government. It is not even about the Lisbon Treaty. It’s about the economy, stupid!

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