by Frank Schnittger
Wed Sep 17th, 2008 at 05:29:18 AM EST
The Irish Government has now published the results of the opinion poll and focus group research it commissioned into the reasons why the Irish people voted no in the Lisbon Treaty Referendum.
Donald Rumsfeld is famous for saying,on February 12, 2002, that
"There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know."
We knew that many people didn't know what they were supposed to be voting on in the Referendum. That was the known unknown and we didn't need to pay Millward Brown IMS a lot of money to tell us this. However what we don't know - the unknown unknown - is what the Government is going to actually do to restore us to our place at the heart of the European project. The news so far is not encouraging.
Already in recent days the Government have floated the trial balloon of seeking an opt-out from the Common Security and Defense policy - thus curtailing our major contribution to international affairs - the provision of peace keeping forces in a variety of hotspots around the world many of which are increasingly coordinated through regional bodies like the EU.
Almost certainly, this is an attempt to bring home to people the reality of what many on the NO campaign were advocating - a form of isolationism verging on Xenophobia - because the performance of our peace-keeping forces - despite a chronic lack of resources - has been a source of considerable national pride.
But first - a summary of the findings of the Millward Brown IMS survey and focus group research [Updated to include my LTE published in Today's Irish Independent]
Promoted by afew
- Turnout for the Lisbon Treaty referendum was 53%, well in excess of the 35% who voted on the first Nice Treaty. The decisive issue was the increase in No voters as a proportion of the total electorate (from 18% at Nice 2 to 28% in June 2008), rather than Yes voters staying at home - which was the key difference between the first and second Nice referenda.
- The main reason for abstaining in this referendum was lack of understanding/knowledge (46%), which is far in excess of any other voluntary or circumstantial reason given for not voting.
- Sixty percent of Irish voters believe that Ireland's interests are best pursued by remaining fully involved in the EU. Fewer than 1 in 5 of the electorate (18%) believe Ireland's interests are best served by opting to be less involved.
- Despite the referendum outcome, Irish people remain amongst the most positive nations in terms of attitudes towards the EU - 73% consider EU membership to be a good thing (Source: Eurobarometer National Report Ireland 69.2, Spring 2008). In this study, positive attitudes to the EU stood at 70%, and even among No voters, 63% think the EU is a good thing, well ahead of the EU average of 52%.
- Of all voters, on both sides, some 23% of can be described as `Soft' voters based on the level of conviction they had when casting their vote (they had some reservations/doubts or were not at all certain). Yes and No voters split evenly between `Hard' (more convinced) and Soft voters. However, both quantitative and qualitative evidence suggests that the vote may actually have been considerably `Softer' than this on both sides.
- The key demographic groups in terms of opposition to the Treaty were, 25-34 year olds (59%), the C2 and DE socio economic groups (63% and 65%) and women (56%). Amongst the main political parties, 63% of Fianna Fail supporters voted for the Treaty, 52% of Fine Gael supporters also voted in favour of it. Labour and Green party supporters both voted against (61% and 53% respectively) as did Sinn Fein supporters (88%). (The question asked respondents which party they felt close to, not which party they would vote for. It is therefore not comparable with a standard opinion poll measure of party support).
- Much of the Yes vote is underpinned by a strong general feeling of pro-Europeanism rather than Treaty specific motivations. A secondary reason for voting Yes is `following advice' (22%). The main source of this advice was the government (12%).
- The main reason cited for voting No was `lack of knowledge/information/ understanding' at 42%. There can be little doubt that this emerged as the primary reason for people voting No.
- Twenty-six percent of No voters mentioned Treaty specific elements that were of concern to them, 20% cited general issues around the referendum, whilst 16% mentioned issues specifically to do with loss of power/independence. All of these specific areas were more likely to have been mentioned by Hard No voters.
- Immigration did not emerge as a significant reason for voting No at a spontaneous level. However it is clear that No voters view immigration considerably less positively than Yes voters in terms of making Ireland a better place to live. This is backed up by the focus group evidence - particularly amongst the C2DE socio-economic group who were more likely to feel their jobs and pay may be under threat from immigration.
- `No' voters were far more likely to believe that erosion of Irish neutrality, end of control over abortion and conscription to a European army were part of the Lisbon Treaty, revealing key cracks in the debate.
- Loss of Commissioner was also a common concern on the No side. Focus groups revealed that many people believed that the loss of a Commissioner would mean Ireland would have no voice in Europe at all.
- At a wider level, an EU knowledge deficit is clearly present which has undoubtedly contributed to the No vote. This was evidenced in both the opinion poll and the focus group research. Knowledge of EU institutions and how they work appears to be particularly low. The difficulty of advocating a referendum that is based on the premise of institutional reform in this environment is apparent.
- The national media and discussions with family, friends and colleagues were ranked as the most valuable sources of campaign information.
- Yes and No voters differ in terms of the perceived impact on Ireland of the No vote. Yes voters are much more likely than No voters to say our economic prospects have weakened and far fewer are likely to say they remain unchanged (47% versus 66%).
- Fewer voters (on either side) believe that our influence in the EU remains unchanged. Yes and No voters differ markedly on whether our influence has weakened (51% versus 20%). Just over 1 in 5 (22%) of No voters believe that Ireland's position has been strengthened - possibly due to an expectation that Ireland is in a position to renegotiate the treaty.
- When asked directly, respondents cited the issue of protection of workers' rights as being "very important" more often than any other issue (of a defined set of issues) relating to Ireland and the EU. Retaining control over public services in the future was similarly cited. Although workers' rights and public services did not feature as issues of concern in the focus groups or to any great extent in the open-ended questions, they made some contribution to the different attitudinal profiles of Yes and No voters. However, the key areas of divergence between the Yes and No sides are retaining military neutrality, preventing excessive EU regulation, the rotating loss of the Commissioner and retaining full control over abortion laws. The focus groups reinforce these indications as to where the main battlegrounds between the Yes and No sides lay, with retaining full control over Corporate Tax also featuring as an issue.
- Knowledge of the EU in general and knowledge/understanding of the Treaty in particular are significant issues. Concerns over specific aspects of the Treaty loom large, particularly perceptions of an erosion of neutrality, the Commissioner issue (which many do not seem to properly understand), Corporate tax and to a lesser degree abortion. The focus group results supported these findings.
- Advocating institutional reform to voters who have such sketchy knowledge of how the EU operates is a very difficult task. Communication about the European Union needs to revert to first principles in order to help people understand how the institutions work, Ireland's role within them, and how Lisbon would affect this.
My take on this has been published in a Letter to the Editor of the Irish Independent today:
Send treaty to Supreme Court - Letters, Opinion - Independent.ie
So, what are we to make of the Government research into why people voted 'No' to the Lisbon Treaty?
Firstly, it is clear that 70pc+ of Irish people remain positively disposed towards the EU -- including 63pc of 'No' voters -- which compares favourably to the EU average of 52pc.
Secondly, 46pc of abstainers and 42pc of 'No' voters stated that a lack of understanding of the treaty contributed to their decision. Putting a complex treaty geared towards institutional reform to a popular referendum is a fraught business when many people don't understand how EU institutions operate in the first place.
People are no longer prepared to support proposals they do not fully understand based merely on trust in the powers that be.
Thirdly, what is noticeable by its absence is any sense that the Irish people who abstained or voted 'No' were supporting Europeans who had been denied the opportunity to vote on the treaty -- an argument frequently made by the 'No' side. Libertas arguments that the vote highlights the democratic deficit in the EU are thus not supported.
Fourthly, only 26pc of 'No' voters mentioned issues specific to the treaty as being instrumental in their decision -- and the treaty issues mentioned, such as abortion and conscription, were often not actually relevant.
Clearly there was a strong objection to being asked to vote on a poorly understood and explained document -- an objection which was exacerbated and exploited by the 'No' side, who claimed that all manner of European elite conspiracies lay behind the sometimes abstruse, and almost always unread text of the document.
Perhaps the Government would consider putting the treaty to a constitutional test before the Supreme Court so that we can have a definitive verdict on precisely how it effects our Constitutional rights? We could then vote with absolute clarity as to the consequences.
This last proposal is a repeat of part of my proposals, contained in an earlier diary From NO to maybe on Lisbon and published as an LTE by a couple of papers:
Give Lisbon to Supreme Court - Letters, Opinion - Independent.ie
Minister Dick Roche's call for a re-run of the Lisbon referendum risks inflaming anti-EU sentiment in Ireland still further, as it underlines the perceived elitist and undemocratic nature of the European project in the eyes of many 'No' voters.
These could well be joined by many 'Yes' voters from the last referendum if an increasingly embattled and unpopular government is not seen to have dealt with the issues arising from the last vote effectively.
These issues include:
1. An amendment to the treaty enabling the restoration of a permanent EU Commissioner from each member state.
2. A series of protocols clarifying the impact, if any, of the treaty on Ireland's neutrality, commitments to joint EU defence and security cooperation, social/moral legislation such as abortion and civil partnerships, and the concerns on religious freedom as expressed by Cardinal Brady.
3. A further road map to address the perceived "democratic deficit" within the EU, including increased powers for the directly elected European Parliament and a clarification of the role of the new post of President of the European Council as defined in the treaty.
4. If necessary, the Government should seek an authoritative ruling from the Supreme Court as to precisely which aspects of the Lisbon Treaty change our Constitution, and thus require ratification by referendum -- so that all the disinformation, confusion and lack of clarity which characterised the last referendum can be resolved. The people deserve to be given a clear choice, not some woolly and confusing document capable of multiple interpretations.
Let the highest Constitutional authority in the land -- the Supreme Court -- clarify precisely what impact the treaty has on our Constitution, and then let the people decide whether they want it or not.
That letter was written with "soft" or "swing" NO voters in mind and thus pays lip service to many of the concerns raised by the NO campaigns without substantively changing the Treaty or derailing the ratification process further.
The key proposal, however is to put the Treaty to the Supreme Court for a definitive ruling on which aspects of the Treaty require constitutional change. Any new Referendum would therefore be specifically on those aspects of the Treaty thus reducing the scope for misunderstanding or misinformation considerably.
It appears that the Government has decided on Thursday 11th. June 2009 for the European and Local Elections - a date which is likely to coincide with similar election in Britain and Northern Ireland, thus restricting Sinn Fein's ability to bus organisers south for the campaign in the Republic.
If the Government wants an even higher turnout for any second referendum, that too would be the ideal date - as the direct European Parliament elections would deflect accusations of a democratic deficit within the EU. However any Supreme Court determination on the constitutionality of the Lisbon Treaty would take time, so there is little time left to lose.
There is no doubt that the Government commissioned the Millward Brown study in order to buy time and give it some wriggle room on the European Council. However the time for wriggling is coming to an end and concerted action is needed if anything is to be rescued from this debacle in what is still one of the most pro-EU nations within the EU.