UK Remain campaign can learn from Ireland’s EU referenda

With Brexit vote on European Union status just weeks away, the apathy of the young may be key, say Mary C Murphy and John O’Brennan

WITH seven weeks to go to the Brexit polling day, in the UK, much can be learned from Ireland’s frequent referendums on EU treaties.

Even the undoubted star power of US President Barack Obama has done little to quell the impression that the UK’s Remain campaign is floundering.

With the Brexit outcome uncertain, Ireland provides important lessons, which the Remain side would do well to absorb.

This will be the first referendum on the European Union held in the UK since 1975. Ireland has held nine EU-related referendums since 1972. The more recent of these have been volatile. Twice the Irish electorate has rejected EU treaties (Nice Treaty, 2001; Lisbon Treaty, 2008), only for those decisions to be emphatically reversed in subsequent polls.

Irish referendum results have been heavily influenced by early, consistent, and diverse mobilisation of social forces, encompassing not just political parties, but also cross-sectoral support and strong civil-society engagement.

Where there has been broad mobilisation, referendums have passed. Where mobilisation has been weak or haphazard (2001, 2008), referendums have failed.

Business organisations, trade unions, and farmers are crucial contributors to EU referendum debates and have the potential to mobilise significant numbers of voters. Their input is typically utilitarian, outlining how a vote to remain or leave will impact directly on the interests and welfare of their sectoral constituents.

UK Remain campaign can learn from Ireland’s EU referenda

Political parties do not necessarily have the same resonance or credibility with voters, as they tend to be encumbered by ideology, and ill-will towards politicians pervades contemporary politics.

Irish referendums also demonstrate, emphatically, that turnout matters. Low turnout in 2001 and 2008 contributed significantly to the defeat of the Nice and Lisbon referendums.

In both cases, the failure to mobilise pro-EU voters in sufficient numbers contrasted with a committed core of staunchly EU-opposed voters. Thus, low turnout is associated with a greater likelihood of the proposition before the voters being defeated; high turnout seems to favour the pro-EU side.

Recent polling evidence demonstrates a key weakness of the Remain campaign, namely, the failure (thus far) to engage younger voters. An opinion poll for The Observer newspaper put the Leave side on 43%, four points ahead of Remain, on 39%.

Some 18% of voters said they were undecided. But the most worrying finding of the poll was the apathy of younger people. Support for remaining in the EU is strongest among the 18-34 age group, with 53% of this cohort saying they want to stay in, against 29% who want to leave.

But only 52% in this age group said they were certain to vote. In contrast, older voters are more likely both to vote, and to vote to Leave, with 55% in favour of leaving and a striking 81% saying they were certain to vote.

This hugely significant generation gap may well hold the key to the outcome of the referendum. Put simply, the Remain side must reach out to, engage, and mobilise younger voters, if the UK is to avoid a Brexit.

Referendum campaigns matter more than election campaigns and voters are more likely to change their minds during a referendum campaign. Within this context, the mobilisation of voters is the key challenge for both sides.

Last year’s marriage equality referendum, in Ireland, demonstrated conclusively that a “bottom-up” campaign, led by civil society and cleverly utilising social media platforms, can succeed in mobilising young people in large numbers.

Without the support of younger people, the referendum would not have passed. Thus Remain campaigners would do well to pay attention to that campaign and how it succeeded in getting the younger vote out.

UK campaigners might also consider that EU referendums in Ireland have been the victim of a broader problem, namely the knowledge vacuum on Europe. This has been a consistent theme around EU referendums in Europe generally.

Simply put, the electorate demonstrates profound ignorance of EU institutional structures and decision-making, and this facilitates the persistence of all kinds of mischaracterisations of the EU, what it is, and what it does. Post-referendum research on the Lisbon Treaty referendum, in Ireland, in 2001, demonstrated that 35% of those surveyed said they “did not know what the Treaty was all about” and only 8% had a “good understanding” of the issues.

This is especially important in the UK, for two reasons. Another recent opinion survey found that British voters have significantly less knowledge, and thus understand significantly less about the European Union, than the citizenry of any other EU state.

If voters are to make rational decisions about the choice before them, the Remain campaign will have to emphatically bridge the information and knowledge gaps, and provide voters with sufficient information that they are properly able to understand the issues and what is at stake for the United Kingdom.

A second reason relates to the nature of the leadership of the pro and anti-European campaigns. In Ireland, the case for the EU has always been made by a strong consensus among elites within the three main political parties: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Labour Party.

By contrast, in the UK referendum, the Remain campaign is being led by David Cameron and George Osborne, who, throughout their careers, have demonstrated pronounced Eurosceptic leanings.

They now argue that the UK’s future can only be securely guaranteed from within the EU, but they have spent most of the last 20 years bashing Brussels, railing against alleged EU encroachments on British sovereignty, and thus reinforcing the myriad tabloid myths about the evils of the Brussels bureaucracy.

Now, David Cameron has to campaign for the case to Remain and he faces a formidable challenge.

Not alone are all the big guns of the Eurosceptic press lined up against him, but his own party is in disarray on the subject.

Winning a referendum against this backdrop will be no easy feat. The Irish experience of EU referendums might be notably different from that of the UK, but the lessons learned may nevertheless be remarkably prescient.

Mary C Murphy is Jean Monnet professor of European politics at the department of government, University College Cork. John O’Brennan is Jean Monnet professor of European integration at the department of sociology, Maynooth University


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