On a perilous platform

The no side has made the treaty poll a phoney war for the next election, and will gain ground even if it passes, but the Government has it all to lose, writes Gerard Howlin

WHAT do you think the referendum is really about?

Is it austerity or stability? The no side clearly got off to a headstart. The yes side generally, and the Government in particular, are playing catch-up.

Playing catch-up is difficult but hurdling over ditches dug by yourself, such water charges and household taxes, is dim-witted politics. Defining the debate is key to winning it and the stability treaty had been relabelled the austerity treaty before the campaign even started. This referendum is the Government’s to lose. If it does, the fallout for it will be toxic.

The campaign began with a clear, but also a reversible, majority in favour. The “don’t knows” are the pivotal constituency that will decide the outcome. If, as in the first Nice and the Lisbon referenda, people are not informed sufficiently and motivated to vote yes, they will stay at home or vote no.

Informing, explaining, and defining are key in a successful referendum campaign. A lack of information and coherent argument killed the first Nice and the Lisbon referenda. The Referendum Commission may do some of the work of explaining but yet again it has not been given the time to do so comprehensively. This time, the Government is supplementing the Commission with its own apparently impartial information campaign, run separately from the Coalition parties’ campaign for a yes vote. If a success of the no campaign has been to shape the debate about austerity, the failure of the yes side has been to define a positive vision of Ireland in Europe.

Election results in Greece and France will now change the paradigm of the debate again. The side that succeeds in using the continental dynamic to best support its case will likely prevail.

Whatever about the substantive issue to be decided on May 31, the tactical advantages for the no campaign are many. Ultimately, they do not have to win on May 31 to win big politically. Campaigning in opposition is always part of a bigger picture, which is an electoral one.

Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance have the lion’s share of the 50% of the airtime allocated by law to those opposing the referendum — far in excess of their electoral mandate. In contrast, Fianna Fáil has to share the leftovers of the airtime of the much larger Government parties on the yes side. It has had to deal with the Éamon Ó Cuív crisis as well.

The ULA and Sinn Féin are using the campaign to raise the profile of their enlarged parliamentary teams. An almost unknown, Paul Murphy, replaced Joe Higgins as an MEP for Dublin when the latter was elected to the Dáil last year. The tactical use of the campaign is clear. The articulate Mr Murphy is becoming much better known. His face, and not that of Mr Higgins, is on the Socialist Party posters. Mr Higgins was a surprise to become an MEP in 2009 ahead of incumbent Eoin Ryan and his apparent main challenger, Mary Lou McDonald. Mr Murphy’s chances of holding his seat are greatly enhanced by his exposure in this referendum campaign. And if his ultimate electoral success has a knock-on effect, it will most likely be felt by Labour’s new MEP in Dublin, Emer Costello. Mr Murphy and Ms Costello will be fighting out of the same electoral corner. The referendum is the phoney war in that fight.

Ms McDonald’s role as a surrogate leader camouflages for the campaign’s most conspicuous absentee, Gerry Adams. If Mr Adams is happy to pose for pictures, he assiduously avoids prolonged interaction at the microphone. However, other Sinn Féin TDs, such as Meath’s Peader Tobin, have taken the opportunity to demonstrate considerable capacity. Opinion polls give Sinn Féin double the vote it got in the last general election. This campaign is about entrenching themselves with a disaffected electorate. Like the ULA, their ultimate gains will likely come at Labour’s expense.

The destination of the Fianna Fáil vote is critical. Even at 15% in the polls, splintering that is enough to determine the final outcome. Party leader Micheál Martin is campaigning hard, but there are signs that his party’s voters are less enthused. A few may share Mr Ó Cuív’s anti-treaty views. More, however, are disgruntled by abuse from Government ministers such as Alan Shatter. Peeing on them politically may be satisfying now, but is ill-advised in the long term.

Outside a divided Alamo of Fianna Fáil’s stalwart support, another quarter of voters are former party supporters. They are the largest political refugee camp between Galway and Gaza: They can’t go home and they won’t go away. The Government has a lot of making-up to do to persuade them to vote yes.

Besides the airwaves war, there is also a ground war to be won. Motivating canvassers to go door-to-door is important. Few people may be persuaded on the door step. But waverers will be fortified and party supporters will be reminded of where their interests lie. It is a crucial part of getting out the vote. In a referendum where turn-out is low, getting your vote out is decisive.

Outside of Dublin people are more likely to listen to independent radio, and national arguments have to be amplified locally. That requires a range of persuasive voices. Wining nationally requires more than the party base camps of the yes and no sides. Splitting the trade union movement internally and separating it from Labour was a major achievement for the no camp. Mr Ó Cuív may give them even more mileage.

The yes camp clearly has farming and business leaders onside. Prominent figures such as Pat Cox and Olive Braiden are campaigning for a yes vote again. If there is a coalition of the willing, it needs to be organised and energised quickly. The final result is still in play. Regardless of the result, the no camp can win politically, but for the Government, a loss will be appalling. There are signs that its efforts, if belated, are energised. Perhaps fear is a key motivator after all.

* Gerard Howlin is a public affairs consultant and was a government adviser from 1997 to 2007

Campaign do’s

* Learn the rules of campaigning in Government — they are different from campaigning while in opposition

* Pick your team wisely

* Clear a pathway for debate and prepare a plan and stick to it no matter what situation arises

Campaign don’ts

* Assume campaigning in Government is the same as in opposition

* Spend vital first days discussing your own website

* Propose or debate divisive issues in the run-in to the campaign, such as water charges or the household tax


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