Turnout on Thursday will have big impact on result


The turnaround on Nice had more to do with turnout than any change of mind by single voters

NEXT THURSDAY the Irish electorate goes to vote on a European Union-related issue for the ninth time. They have already been asked to vote on six previous European treaties, including that dealing with our accession.

It is instructive to look at these previous occasions for indicators of how and where turnout and sentiment might impact on the ultimate outcome. Although it is 30 years ago this month since the first such referendum, the contours of the debate around EEC/EU issues and the factors impacting on the outcome have not changed much.

The Irish voters surprised the political establishment in the May 1972 referendum on accession. Most had expected a Yes result, but all were astounded by how emphatic it was at 83 per cent.

The Jack Lynch-led Fianna Fáil government and Liam Cosgrave-led Fine Gael were enthusiastic in support of entry. Both parties had been supportive when Ireland had first applied in the late 1950s, but the Irish application had been collaterally delayed by Charles de Gaulle’s persistent veto on the United Kingdom’s entry.

In 1971 the Labour Party was an anti-European party and with the associated trade union movement had mounted a strong campaign against the accession, so intense in fact that in the early stages it was feared the outcome might be close.

Fianna Fáil’s Paddy Hillery and Fine Gael’s Garret FitzGerald, who were the leading protagonists in the Yes campaign, later separately attributed their success to the overwhelming economic rationale for Irish membership. In those days the government could and did spend money arguing for a Yes vote.

Hillery’s biographer John Walsh observes that while the financial imbalance between the two sides was certainly exacerbated by the government’s money and resources, the divisions within the No camp, the extremist rhetoric used by hardline nationalists on that side and, most significantly, “the inability of the No campaign to provide an alternative to Irish membership” were more significant factors in the outcome.

Once we had joined Irish voters were not directly confronted with a question on our membership of the EU for 15 years.

The Single European Act was the subject of a referendum in Ireland in May 1987. The then FitzGerald-led government had originally planned not to hold a referendum, only to be compelled to do so by the Supreme Court in the Crotty case.

Fianna Fáil was back in power by the time the referendum was held, and, supported enthusiastically by Fine Gael and this time by the Labour Party, the vote was passed 70 per cent to 30 per cent.

There were warning signs for future such referendums, however, in the details of turnout and the poll data on levels of understanding about the Single European Act.

The pollster Jack Jones tells in his memoirs of how the turnout in the Single European Act referendum at 44 per cent was “a massive 29 per cent less than it was in the general election three months earlier”.

He also points out that in an MRBI poll published by The Irish Times 10 days beforehand, 40 per cent of the electorate was still undecided.

When it came to voting on the European Union (Maastricht) Treaty in June 1992, the result was remarkably similar to that on the Single European Act. Some 69 per cent voted Yes. The turnout for this referendum was higher at 57 per cent, in part because the referendum debate got entangled in the intense controversy on abortion which arose from the X case. The government had negotiated a protocol into the Maastricht Treaty designed to preserve our laws on the abortion issue as they were seen to be prior to the Supreme Court judgment in that case.

Sentiment towards European integration shifted only slightly when the Amsterdam Treaty came to be voted on in May 1998. The outcome was still decisive, but the Yes vote was down to 62 per cent.

Three years later, when it came to the first Nice Treaty, Irish voting patterns on Europe flipped, at least initially. While polls had shown the Nice referendum was in real difficulty, the result, when it came, sent shockwaves through the Irish and European political establishment. Just 35 per cent of the electorate voted, and they rejected the treaty 54 per cent to 46 per cent.

The reasons and circumstances in which that result was turned around in the second Nice referendum are more complex to explain here than space allows. However, it is clear that the turnaround occurred more because of a transformation in turnout than any change of mind by individual voters.

Almost a million people voted in Nice One and only 453,661 voted Yes. However, almost a million and a half voters voted in Nice Two, and almost all of these additional voters went to the Yes side, which got 906,317 votes.

The result of the first Lisbon Treaty referendum was almost identical to that of the first Nice Treaty. Some 53 per cent voted No. The turnaround in the second Lisbon referendum was even more dramatic, with 67 per cent voting Yes. Again it was attributable primarily to a change in turnout, although on the Lisbon Treaty there was also a larger number of switchers from No to Yes.

In June 2008, 1.6 million people voted on the Lisbon Treaty, only 752,451 of them voted Yes. In October 2009, 1.8 million people voted and 1,214,268 voted Yes. Almost all of the additional voters voted Yes and two of every five who voted No changed their minds.

All of which suggests that while the polls give some ground for cautious optimism for the Yes side in this referendum, the outcome will be determined as much by who bothers to go to the polls on Thursday as anything else.

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