A warning to the Yes campaign


JUST ONE month before the June 2008 first vote on the Lisbon Treaty an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll gave the Yes camp a 17 percentage point lead on the Noes.

Forty per cent of those surveyed said they did not know how they would vote. Yet, only a few weeks later, to general astonishment and consternation among our European allies, the treaty was rejected by 53 to 47 per cent on a turnout of just over half the electorate.

It was a remarkable and unprecedented shift in public opinion that should provide the most chilling of warnings to those promoting the EU fiscal treaty in the referendum on May 31st. Today’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll puts the current Yes majority at a much more modest seven percentage points (30 to 23 per cent) than May 2008, but the Don’t Knows, at a remarkably similar 39 per cent. Everything is still to play for, in a climate where an electorate is clearly minded to punish a Government whose popularity, courtesy of austerity and charges, is certainly on the slide. There is simply no way of forcing voters to confine themselves to the question on the ballot paper.

There is a remarkably solid conviction (58 per cent) among those surveyed, particularly among the middle classes, that the country will require a second bailout – a view probably shared by most economists, though not the Government. It is a fear that the Yes campaign is likely to play heavily on, with warnings that the most direct and important effect of a No vote will be to see the country excluded from the possibility of further bailout funds from the European Stability Mechanism.

On the broader issue of support for the EU, the poll reflects continuing high, though dropping levels of engagement with the union. Dissatisfaction with how EU leaders are running the union is on the rise, while the poll also reflects the significant and worrying decline since early 2009 in the proportion – from four in five, to two-thirds – of those who estimate that it is better “in the current crisis” to be part of the EU (although the main fall occurred before the October 2009 Lisbon II vote). Of those most positive to membership by far the highest proportions are among Fine Gael (86 per cent), Fianna Fáil (74 per cent), and Labour (69 per cent) supporters.

Their concerted mobilisation and education drives, particularly among middle classes and farmers, will be critical to a crucial high turnout and Yes vote. Misguided constitutional obstacles placed by the courts on the Government in selling its own proposals mean parties must open their coffers to make the case – no bad thing from a democratic point of view, but hard in straitened times – and TDs must get out and campaign.

The Government should also belatedly take heed of the recently leaked Referendum Commission warning on the “grossly inadequate” time available to it in the last two polls – on judges’ pay and inquiries – to perform its educational role.

Its research found unsurprisingly that a lack of understanding of the proposals led a significant number either to abstain or to vote No. An ill-prepared vote is a recipe for failure. There is still time.