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Result points to class-driven divide in voting patterns

THE referendum on the fiscal treaty has exposed growing divisions among groups of voters.

Polls taken during the campaign, and the results from around the country, remind us that the EU appeals more strongly to some groups of voters than others. Moreover, the fiscal discipline embedded in the treaty had an even more narrow appeal.

It is not possible to come to concrete conclusions based on the outcomes of a single election, but there is a growing sense that a left-right divide is beginning to emerge in Irish politics. The growth of Sinn Féin support and the emergence of the ULA at the general election in Feb 2011, coupled with some class-based patterns at the referendum, suggest that the economic crisis may be driving slow change in the alignment of Irish voters.

Nowhere is the socioeconomic divide more evident than across Dublin constituencies at the referendum. There is no getting away from the predictability of many of the results delivered yesterday. Constituencies with a heavy concentration of affluent, or ABC1, voters returned high yes results. This is consistent with patterns from the past, especially in Dublin South, South East, and Dún Laoghaire, the three constituencies which recorded the highest yes votes.

Conversely, constituencies with a lower socio-economic profile, or with high numbers of DE voters, tended towards closer margins between yes and no, and three Dublin constituencies — Mid West, North West, and South West — returned no votes, along with the Donegal constituencies. Besides the five constituencies that returned a no vote, there were also a number of constituencies with very tight results.

Just five votes separated the yes and no side in Dublin Mid West, while Dublin Central and Cork North Central were also relatively close. Indeed, it is probably not a coincidence that most of the constituencies which returned the high no votes had Sinn Féin TDs on the ground.

There are two elements to this. Firstly, Sinn Féin attracts a strong vote from voters in lower socio-economic groupings. Secondly, the presence of a Sinn Féin TD in the constituency canvassing for a no vote probably had a mobilisation and persuasion impact on voters.

THE large no votes recorded in the Donegal constituencies were not unexpected, as Donegal has voted against many of the EU referenda in recent years. The reasons behind the Donegal vote are complex. While rural constituencies returned yes votes, the yes vote was lower in the Connaught-Ulster region, vis à vis other regions, influenced heavily by the Donegal no. There is a strong Sinn Féin presence in both Donegal constituencies, and the county has also been hit hard by the economic collapse.

A decline in its manufacturing base in recent decades, along with difficulties in the fishing industry, left Donegal very vulnerable in the recession. During the campaign, Joan Burton mentioned that Donegal (when adjusted for population) was one of the top recipients of the social welfare budget. Austerity and high unemployment undoubtedly contribute to the Sinn Féin vote at general elections and may drive some of the anti-EU sentiment at referenda.

There were also some indications of an urban-rural divide. Socio-economic profile aside, rural constituencies were more likely to return high yes votes. Cork South West and North West were among the 10 constituencies with the highest yes votes.

Strikingly, it was not unusual to see boxes from urban parts of a constituency returning a majority no vote, while boxes from nearby rural areas recorded majority yes votes. There is a long-established pattern of large farmers voting yes, while smaller farmers along the West coast have been more likely to vote no. The resounding yes vote in Mayo deviates from this trend and reflects the presence of the Taoiseach in the constituency.

Rural voters tend to be more conservative than their urban counterparts. The high rural yes vote reflects risk-aversion among these voters. They may have been unwilling to take chances on the medium term funding of the State or may have been influenced more strongly by the "yes for stability" argument.

Probably the most worrying feature of the result yesterday was the high rate of abstention; more than 50% of voters did not cast a vote. Turnout peaked at just under 70% for the general election in Feb 2011. It dropped to 56% for the presidential election last October, and declined further again for Thursday’s referendum.

In and of itself, 50% is not a bad turnout for a standalone referendum, but it should sound a worrying note for a government facing a children’s rights referendum in the autumn and potentially a Seanad abolition referendum in spring 2013. Voter fatigue is evident, and strategies to deal with it should be developed as a matter of urgency.

* Dr Theresa Reidy is a lecturer in the department of government at UCC