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Column: Who are the winners and losers in the referendum campaign right now?

With nine days to go before referendum day, Dr Jane Suiter of UCC analyses the parties and the latest polls to see how the campaign is playing out.

Dr Jane Suiter

AS THE REFERENDUM stands right now, the Yes campaign appears to be holding its own with indications that it is continuing to gain voters. Two polls in recent days paint a similar picture albeit with slightly different numbers. Friday’s Red C poll shows a 6 per cent rise in support for the Yes vote with just two weeks to go, with 53 per cent of voters indicating a Yes while the No vote has fallen by four points to 31 per cent.

Nonetheless, it is still early days as we know that many voters do not decide until about four or five days out from the day of the vote. In Friday’s Red C poll just 16 per cent are undecided, indicating many No voters are switching to undecided. However, the latest Irish Independent/Millward Brown Lansdowne poll found a larger number of undecided voters at 35 per cent –  with a potentially more worrying 30 per cent of both Yes and No voters unsure of why they are voting the way they indicated. Both campaigns thus has far more to do in terms of getting people to understand their messages.

Overall, while the debate is lacking some lustre it appears that the government and other advocates of both votes have take on the broad lessons of referendums past. This time the parties are conducting a campaign both in the media and on the ground going door-to-door while civil society groups are also getting involved. In both the second Nice and Lisbon referendums this only occurred in the second vote.

So far few events have been critical but given the pace of change in Europe, a game changer is still a possibility. It is noteworthy that Declan Ganley’s intervention lacked the traction and attention which he received in the Lisbon campaign. The parties on the Yes side have also managed to a large extent to narrow the frame to future funding needs and away from the No votes preferred frame of austerity versus stability.

Comparing the parties

In terms of the parties Fine Gael has done a good job of converting its voters with some 79 per cent of its voters supporting the Treaty. Interestingly support for the party is still dropping and has fallen by 3 points in just two weeks, leaving Fine Gael with 29 per cent according to Red C – the lowest level of support the party has seen since September 2008. In addition the referendum poll was undertaken prior to recent gaffes by senior Fine Gael ministers Michael Noonan and Richard Bruton – although neither appears likely to have the destabilising impact of Brian Cowen and Charlie McCreevy declaring they hadn’t even read previous treaties.

Labour has perhaps had a less visible campaign although its ministers have not been as gaffe prone. Crucially it has only converted 50 per cent of its voters despite the party waging a reasonably visible door-to-door canvass across many parts of its strongholds. The party put Joan Burton in charge of the campaign perhaps in a bid to woo women voters who are still more undecided than men. However, she has not been as visible in the campaign so far as some of her colleagues.

Fianna Fáil is in an interesting position. The party has always espoused a pro-European position but in opposition has often been lukewarm. Yet this time out Micheál Martin has been one of the most visible advocates of a Yes vote. With 62 per cent of its voters in favour, there is little sign of the old fashioned politicing of Fianna Fáil in opposition where some would publically argue in favour but vote against in a bid to embarrass the government, as happened last in the Oireachtas Inquires referendum. This time, perhaps because of Martin’s very public battle with Éamon Ó Cuív, members appear to be rowing in behind the leadership.

Sinn Féin has a similar conversion rate to Fianna Fail with some 62 per cent of the party’s voters in the No camp. But perhaps the biggest impact for Sinn Fein is the increase in its poll numbers. with the requirements of the McKenna judgment leading to a greatly increased profile for its deputies on the airwaves. Thus Sinn Féin continues to gain support at the same rate that Labour loses it, securing 21 per cent of the first preference vote in the Red C poll, a 2 per cent increase in just two weeks.

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As Red C noted, it is worth noting that despite the apparent relationship between Sinn Fein’s rise and Labour’s fall, they are gaining as much from Fine Gael as from Labour, and ultimately the gains are from disaffected 2007 Fianna Fail voters, who initially moved to both Fine Gael and Labour at the 2011 election, and are now looking for a new home

Interestingly this has not benefitted leader Gerry Adams who increasingly looks outdated and out of touch when compared to some of the younger more dynamic deputies such as Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty. This is reflected in the Independent poll where Adams recorded only 35 per cent satisfaction rating with 51 per cent dissatisfied. In contrast, Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s satisfaction rating stands at 42 per cent, with 52 per cent dissatisfied.

Dr Jane Suiter lectures in the Department of Government at UCC.

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Dr Jane Suiter

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