Referendum facing defeat

Fri, Jun 6, 2008, 01:00

THE REFERENDUM on the Lisbon Treaty is heading towards defeat, according to findings of the latest Irish Times/TNS mrbi opinion poll published today. There is a dramatic shift in public opinion towards a No vote, with majorities in most age groups now opposed to the treaty on the grounds of safeguarding Ireland's identity and neutrality and their poor understanding of the issues.

These findings will come as a huge shock to the Government and the European Union at large. If replicated at polling stations next week, they will damage the authority of the new Taoiseach Brian Cowen and raise diplomatic problems within Europe. The likely impact doesn't stop there. A sudden unravelling of support for the treaty within the major parties raises questions about the nature and quality of the political campaigns being orchestrated by Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore and Mr Cowen.

Given the comprehensive nature of the surge in support towards the No camp, which now leads by an unprecedented margin of 35 percentage points to 30, the Government and its allies may find it impossible to turn the tide. Slightly more than one-third of the electorate is still undecided or will not vote. That represents a reduction of 12 points in the Don't Know figure during the past three weeks. Not only have No campaigners attracted these undecided voters, they have garnered additional endorsements from the Yes camp.

Support for the Lisbon Treaty has fallen in every political party during recent weeks, with the exception of the Greens, while opposition has risen spectacularly. A majority within Fianna Fáil still favours the treaty, but the No vote there has jumped from 10 to 25 per cent. A similar trend is evident in both Fine Gael and Labour where sizeable majorities now oppose change. Only middle-class voters endorse a Yes vote while farmers and working class respondents have gravitated towards the No camp. People in the Munster region are most firmly opposed. Women also take a negative view.

In the past, complacency and desultory political campaigning led to the defeat of the EU referendum on the Nice Treaty in 2001. On this occasion, while a greater effort has been made to educate voters, nearly 60 per cent said they still did not know or were only vaguely aware of the issues involved. Resistance to a broad, cross-party consensus was also evident, with 17 per cent of No voters saying they didn't like being told what to do and felt they were being forced into voting Yes.

A five-point gap between the No and Yes campaigns may not be an insurmountable lead. But it will take fresh thinking and a concerted political drive to reverse a momentum that has suddenly developed against the treaty. Belated support from the IFA and its farmer members may help. But the attitudes of women and of working-class voters, who have become increasingly concerned about a downturn in the economy, will ultimately decide the outcome of this referendum. The Lisbon Treaty, on the basis of this opinion poll, may not be passed.