Further thoughts on the Irish referendum

Thanks to two opinion polls which were commissioned in a hurry after the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, we now know a little bit more about the profiles of those who voted yes and no on June 12.  The first of these polls was conducted by Eurobarometer at the request of the EU representation in Ireland, with fieldwork being conducted between June 13 and June 15.  The second was conducted between June 16 and June 18 by Red C on behalf of the Irish Sunday Business Post, and involved academics from Trinity College Dublin, the University of Nottingham and Queens University Belfast, including Michael Marsh, one of the most respected analysts of political opinion in Ireland.

Both opinion polls confirm what constituency level results had indicated: the Irish vote did indeed fracture largely along class lines.  According to Eurobarometer, 60% of the self-employed, 66% of senior managers, 58% of professionals and 57% of those who left the educational system after the age of 20 voted in favour of the Treaty.  By contrast, 58% of the unemployed and 74% of manual workers voted against it.  The picture which emerges from the Red C poll is very similar.  Even more telling are some of the figures emerging from the political parties’ own analyses of voting in particular polling stations.  Moving down from the constituency level to a more fine-grained analysis reveals even sharper contrasts between voting behaviour in different areas.  According to the Sunday Business Post, in Dublin West no less than 71% of voters in affluent Castleknock voted yes, while 83.4% voted no in Blakestown.  Furthermore, a recent French opinion poll not only confirms that the French would also voted to reject the Lisbon Treaty, but that like in 2005 they would have divided along class lines precisely as in Ireland.

The two Irish opinion polls give sharply different pictures, however, regarding the reasons why people voted no.  This presumably reflects the very different methodologies adopted by the two studies.  The Eurobarometer survey asked people directly why they voted no.  Fears about the economy or unemployment were not mentioned, and just 1% of survey responses indicated that people had voted no as a way of avoiding an influx of immigrants.  In sharp contrast, the Red C survey did not directly ask why people had voted yes or no.  Rather, it asked them for their opinions on a range of political issues, and compared the answers of yes and no voters.  65% of those against the Treaty agreed with the statement that “There should be much stricter limits on the number of foreigners coming into Ireland”, as opposed to a still depressingly high 52% of those in favour of it.  58% of those opposed to the treaty, but just 14% of those in favour of it, agreed that if the treaty had been passed, it would have caused even more unemployment.  55% of those against the treaty, as opposed to 41% of those in favour of it, reported that their household’s financial situation had deteriorated in the past 12 months.  While I haven’t seen any regression analysis yet, we can guess what the results will show.  It will be particularly interesting to see to what extent class differences in voting behaviour can be explained by these “economic” variables.

I am informed that the conventional wisdom in academic survey analysis is that you should not ask people to answer your research question directly, but rather attempt to infer the answer in the manner of the Red C survey.  If this is correct — and of course I defer to the experts on this — then my earlier argument that the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in part reflected the economic concerns of working class voters remains consistent with the data.  Otherwise, we need a better alternative explanation for the class divide which has emerged in France and Ireland with respect to further European political integration, and which is too dramatic to be simply ignored or wished away.

My earlier article went out of its way to acknowledge that there were a host of non-economic reasons explaining the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty.  All change is risky, and therefore costly, which means that it is rational for voters to reject it unless they can see the benefits.  Given that European decision-making has not ground to a halt in the wake of enlargement, it was unclear to voters what the benefits of this treaty were.  More importantly, it seems clear that there will be a host of additional reasons for voters to reject the treaty next time round, unless Europe’s leaders are very careful.  Calls for Europe to exclude Ireland if it comes up with the wrong response yet again are politically unrealistic, which is why such calls are coming from the shriller segments of the commentariat, rather than from politicians who are forced to inhabit the realms of the possible.  But such calls could scupper any chances that may still remain of saving this treaty.  Apart from anything else, they will provide “no” campaigners with an unanswerable question: why should Ireland, or anyone else for that matter, sign up to yet another European treaty if their partners are unwilling to live up to their legal obligations under the present one? The whole point of the European experiment is that it is based on law.  International law has not just been the mechanism through which the continent has integrated: a commitment to multilateral, treaty-based international cooperation lies at the heart of the European vision of the broader world.  Trying to further such a vision by tearing up existing treaties would be intellectually incoherent, and politically disastrous.

The very fact that there was such an overwhelming “no” vote will provide one important reason for voters to switch to the no camp next time around (assuming that there will be or should be a next time around, which isn’t yet obvious).  The existence of anti-Irish threats, either veiled or explicit, would provide yet another.  In my view, the Irish Taoiseach should make it clear to his colleagues that it would be politically impossible for him to hold another referendum under such circumstances, since it would be almost sure to fail.  Paradoxically, if Europe’s leadership wants the Lisbon Treaty, it will have to unambiguously commit to respecting the results of a second and final Irish referendum, even if this means having to operate under the provisions of the Nice Treaty for the foreseeable future.  This would deprive the no campaign of several of its most convincing arguments, and, whatever the result of a second vote, help to restore the badly tarnished image of the Union across Europe.

2 Responses to "Further thoughts on the Irish referendum"

  1. Damian Hockney   June 27, 2008 at 3:32 am

    An interesting comment. It would useful to see also more comment on the age breakdown, which was apparently stark. Young people apparently were almost overwhelmingly on the No side, whatever class they were from. However, I’ve seen no actual statistics to bear this out.

  2. Kevin O'Rourke   June 27, 2008 at 6:59 am

    Damian, what you say is absolutely true, and documented in the Eurobarometer survey which I link to above. Why this is so is an interesting question — one hypothesis is contained in the comment to my previous post on this issue. Or, it could simply be an anti-establishment reaction. My bet is that once the team behind the Red C survey have completed their analysis we’ll know a lot more about why the young voted so heavily against the treaty.