Referendum campaigns dividing along class lines


INSIDE POLITICS:Middle-class voters and farmers are supporting the fiscal pact, while working-class Ireland is increasingly hostile to it

WHATEVER THE outcome of the referendum next Thursday, the campaign has exposed a big class divide in Ireland on the issue of Europe. Reports coming back from party canvassers confirm opinion poll evidence showing middle-class and working-class voters taking widely divergent views on the fiscal treaty.

It is strange that a country that defied the European norm in which class was the major influence on party politics over the past century should find itself so divided along class lines when it comes to the European Union.

This is not a new phenomenon but it appears to be getting more pronounced as time goes on, with increasing alienation about the European project among working-class voters, particularly those who are open to worries about sovereignty or swayed by nationalistic rhetoric.

One of the ironies of the situation is that people dependent on welfare probably stand to lose most if there is a rejection of the fiscal treaty and the country is plunged into a funding crisis, yet voters in that category provide the bedrock of the No support.

The other side of the coin from working- class alienation is the continuing loyalty of the Irish middle class and the farming community to the EU, despite the erosion of sovereignty involved in the EU-IMF-ECB bailout.

The strength of the Yes support among middle-class voters and farmers can be attributed in some part to enlightened self-interest but it goes deeper than that. For decades now, Eurobarometer polls have shown the Irish to be among the most enthusiastic supporters of European integration. The association of the EU with prosperity and progress has ensured that middle Ireland has remained loyal even in the current trying circumstances.

In fact, some of the assumptions on which both sides have based their campaigns appear to have underestimated the level of support among the electorate for the concept of EU solidarity in the face of the financial and economic crisis.

For instance, a Eurobarometer poll, conducted in March before the campaign got into its stride, found considerable support in Ireland for the principles underpinning the fiscal treaty. Asked if they believed help for member states in financial or economic difficulties should be conditional on following common rules, 61 per cent of Irish voters were in favour; just 13 per cent were against and 26 per cent didn’t know.

Support for escalating financial penalties for states who failed to comply with rules on debt was not quite as strong, but 50 per cent of Irish voters were in favour, 24 per cent against and 26 per cent didn’t know.

Irish voters were a little less committed than the European average in their support for fiscal discipline but, given that the country is in the throes of the bailout programme and that bank debt is a continuing source of controversy, the level of support was remarkably high.

The same class division that has featured in the referendum polls can be extrapolated from the Eurobarometer poll with middle- class Ireland solidly in favour of fiscal disciplines and working-class Ireland against.

The ongoing crisis in Greece has probably accentuated existing attitudes with the doomsday scenario of total financial collapse and an exit from the euro reinforcing the tendency of middle-class people to vote Yes in the Irish referendum. Public servants in particular have an incentive to ensure that adequate funding is in place to avoid the fate that has befallen their counterparts in Greece.

The polarisation of attitudes to the EU along class lines is already having an impact on party politics with the rise in support for Sinn Féin mirroring increasing working-class hostility to the EU.

The collapse of Fianna Fáil, the great catch-all party, in last year’s election may have played a decisive part in the process. That party’s leadership has been strongly pro- Europe since the 1960s and this kept a large chunk of the party’s formerly strong working-class base in line over Europe.

The defeat of Nice One and Lisbon One can now be seen as the harbingers of Fianna Fáil’s diminishing authority and the party’s crushing defeat has left part of its old base exposed to the attractions of the No side.

That has not stopped party leader Micheál Martin campaigning for a Yes vote and if the treaty is ratified he will be entitled to a share in the credit for the achievement. By making his party relevant to the campaign and avoiding the superficial attractions of trying to be too cute, he has taken an important step towards securing Fianna Fáil’s future.

Nonetheless, the drift to No in working- class Ireland means there is a section of his party’s base that is probably never going to return. If Fianna Fáil recovers ground it will be in middle-class and rural Ireland.

Sinn Féin’s rise in the polls has been helped by its strong anti-EU line. The party’s growing working-class base coincides with the areas where anti-EU feeling is strongest. The massive publicity it has obtained as a result of its referendum stance has helped that process.

In the longer term, though, Sinn Féin’s anti-EU stance could hinder the potential to widen its base by giving middle Ireland new reasons to continue rejecting the party.

For Fine Gael, the polarisation on Europe has reinforced its new-found status as the favoured party of middle Ireland. It has campaigned strongly on the treaty and, assuming there is a Yes vote, its recently acquired status as the biggest party in the State should be reinforced.

The Labour Party, though, is in a vulnerable position on the fiscal pact. While its stance will resonate with its support base in the public service, the party’s working-class base will find it harder to resist the attractions of the No campaign.

However, Labour has responded aggressively to the Sinn Féin attack. In the longer run, the struggle for dominance between the two parties will have a critical bearing on the future direction of Irish politics.

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