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Sunday 28 May 2023 Dublin: 10°C
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Column How will Ireland vote on the EU treaty?
As Ireland reacts to yesterday’s announcement of a referendum, politics lecturer Eoin O’Malley looks at the prospects of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns.

THE SHORT ANSWER is that we don’t know. We can see from an opinion poll a month ago that there is a marginal majority in favour of the Yes vote. As Richard Colwell of Red C points out there, this might not be enough of a cushion to withstand a strong no campaign. But it is not written in stone that the campaign must see a shift in support from the yes side to the no side. The yes side could run a good campaign. We know that the government parties are likely to put significant resources into securing a yes vote, and if the government is still reasonably popular (although the recent B&A Sunday Times poll had satisfaction at just 25%) people are unlikely to use it to punish the government.

However if we look at the Red C poll we can also see that older people and middle class people are significantly more likely to oppose the Treaty. Given that these are the people who are more likely vote (although Red C control for self-declared likelihood to vote) this might lead us to believe that the Treaty would be rejected.

But polls such as this may not be fully meaningful. It will only be in the heat, and hopefully light, of a campaign that we see public opinion solidify. Opinions are based on predispositions, and perhaps the Yes-side will be worried that trust in the EU among Irish citizens is at an all time low (just 24 percent trust the EU compared to 60 percent who say they do not, see Eurobarometer here, p. 46). We just don’t like the EU as much as we used to.

Despite this, there are a number of reasons I think the Yes side might edge this referendum. First is that the government took the decision to call it, and it wasn’t as a result of an ‘Adam’s judgement’ – where the yes side could be thought to be actively trying to deny the people a vote, and the whole affair perceived as yet another attempt by an undemocratic elite to foist their evil plans on the innocent Irish people.

‘The middle classes will feel uncomfortable being on the same side as Sinn Féin if they’re not joined by someone ‘respectable’ like Shane Ross’

If the No side is going to win it has to frame the question in some way. It’s too bald for people to accept that this is a ‘do you like the EU or not?’ vote. Nor is it the case that this will be an ‘austerity referendum’ – the austerity will happen regardless. But we can see that in the past, opponents were able to place issues such as neutrality, abortion and conscription in the decision. If there was something that unified the Catholic right and the nationalist left it is probably that they fear a loss of sovereignty – they might point out that this treaty is confirmation of that loss. The yes side might point out that the very fact there’s a referendum shows that the Irish people are still sovereign.

The Treaty is much shorter and clearer than previous treaties. It is not going to be easy for the No side to collect a whole raft of issues and build a disparate coalition. Presumably Cóir do not have an opinion on this treaty and will not get involved in the campaign. So it is not clear who will lead the no campaign. Declan Ganley might not oppose this, and it’s not clear Shane Ross or others on the right will lead the charge against it. So it might be left to Sinn Féin. And Sinn Féin might struggle to say where Ireland is expected to borrow to service a deficit the party wants to increase if EU funding is closed off to us. Meanwhile, the old and middle class will feel uncomfortable being on the same side as Sinn Féin if they are not joined by someone ‘respectable’ such as Shane Ross.

On the substantive issue of the treaty there is a clear majority of Irish people in favour of reducing deficit and debt (ie more favour austerity than think a stimulus is plausible – see EB survey here page 96) and most people support stronger co-ordination of economic and fiscal policies (p 99). Even though many economists agree that this Treaty is a pointless sop to the Germans, few argue that it is inherently dangerous.

A major difference between this referendum and others is that now we have no threat of a veto. If 12 other countries from the Eurozone agree to go ahead, it will happen regardless of the Irish vote. While the EU, I’m sure, will sweeten the deal by giving some concession in the weeks coming up to the referendum, the other countries are not invested in the same way they were for the Nice and Lisbon referendums, where nothing could happen at an EU-wide level until every country was on board.

The yes side may incorrectly try to say that it will threaten our membership of the Euro – it will not. But it will mean that part of the eurozone goes ahead without us, leaving us uncertain of our status. The fear of being excluded might be stronger than their anger at the EU. This should be enough to make the Irish vote ‘Yes’.

Eoin O’Malley teaches politics at Dublin City University. His book, ‘Governing Ireland: From cabinet government to delegated governance’ edited with Muiris MacCarthaigh is published next week. You can follow his pointless musings on Twitter @AnMailleach.

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