Public will vote with caution

Research shows caution, not anger, will determine the treaty referendum, writes political editor Paul O’Brien.

CAUTION or anger?

Which will play a bigger part in this referendum?

Transport Minister Leo Varadkar was understandably anxious that anger would play the biggest part when he spoke about the possibility of a referendum in recent weeks.

“I would be concerned that it would turn into a referendum on extraneous issues such as septic tanks, bondholders, [the] banking crisis or decisions being made by the Government, such as cutbacks.”

In fact, anger at the Government may not be as significant a factor as many politicians seem to assume.

After the second Lisbon Treaty referendum was passed in 2009, the Department of Foreign Affairs commissioned research to assess what had changed since Lisbon I, which had crashed to defeat a year previously.

“An examination of the relationship between government satisfaction and vote choice in recent Irish EU referendums indicates that government dissatisfaction has had limited impact on any of the outcomes in question,” researchers Richard Sinnott and Johan A Elkink of UCD wrote.

As evidence of this, they pointed to the five EU-related referendums that had taken place since 1998:

* In the first (Amsterdam), government satisfaction was high and the treaty was approved.

* In the second (Nice I), government satisfaction was still high and the treaty was rejected.

* In the third (Nice II), government satisfaction was low and the treaty was approved.

* In the fourth (Lisbon I), satisfaction was low and the treaty was rejected.

* In the fifth (Lisbon II), government satisfaction was through the floor and the treaty was approved.

“In short,” the researchers said, “government satisfaction can be substantially up or down without having a commensurate effect on EU referendum outcomes.”

So if anger is not a major factor, what is?

Caution may well be. One in four of those who voted no to Lisbon in 2008 voted yes in 2009. Arguably the main reason for people doing so? “The belief that the yes vote would result in an improvement in Ireland’s economic prospects.”

When the Lisbon I referendum took place in June 2008, the economic and banking collapse had not yet taken place and voters were by and large oblivious to what was coming down the line.

When the Lisbon II referendum took place a year later, the scale of the crisis was clear to everyone.

“While the fundamental issue at stake was the same in the 2008 and 2009 referendums, both the policy context in which the question was being asked and the political/economic situation in which the referendum was taking place were very different,” the researchers said.

“By late 2009, the international banking crisis and the ensuing economic recession had exposed a property bubble and a national banking crisis and a full-blown fiscal crisis and a substantial loss of international competitiveness as the underlying vulnerabilities of what had been seen as the indomitable Celtic Tiger.”

The researchers made very clear that in voting yes second time out, people did so because of a “positive overall economic expectation” that the treaty could help Ireland’s cause. There was “no evidence that voters were panicked by economic adversity into voting yes”, the researchers said.

It seems, then, that it wasn’t downright fear that persuaded people to vote yes, but caution — the instinct to play safe.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who was minister for foreign affairs at the time the research was commissioned, recently discussing the findings said: “Why did people change from Lisbon I to Lisbon II? They weren’t freshly imbued with a new EU idealism, to be honest. But the research indicates very strongly that the gathering storm clouds were the prime motivating factor behind people switching — or that significant portion that switched from no to yes second time out. So sometimes the context, grim and all as it is, can actually move people in a different direction than you might expect.”

Mr Martin’s point was that there was no reason to fear a referendum on the fiscal compact treaty. If the Lisbon research is any guide, people will vote cautiously rather than angrily amid a difficult economic outlook.

That might be of some comfort to the Government as it faces into a referendum it really didn’t want to hold.


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