Selling referendums in Ireland

The Irish have a lot of experience voting on EU treaties, and veteran campaigners there know that attention spans are short and personal experience powerful. Joe Costello, former member of the Irish Parliament and Minister for Trade And Development, says much can be learned. This piece is part of the UCL European Institute’s first guest editor week on openDemocracy.

We are approaching the end game: a date has been set for the Brexit Referendum. On 23 June the UK will go to the polls to decide whether to say yes or no to Europe. If the people vote yes, the provisions of the “New Settlement for the United Kingdom within the European Union” will take effect; if they vote no, the UK will cease to be a member of the EU.

After 44 years in Europe and 11 years waiting to join, the UK is divided on whether to remain in the European Union or leave. The Celtic fringe of the UK—Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland nationalists are in favour of continuing EU membership. The Republic of Ireland, which joined in 1972 with the UK, is strongly in favour of EU membership. Ireland’s GDP per capita in purchasing power standards has moved from 64.2% of the EU average in 1972 to 134% in 2014, and Ireland has moved from market isolation to market integration.

The UK’s experience of Europe was different. The UK was already prosperous in 1972 and had access to international markets through the commonwealth of countries. The common market was a valuable extension of those markets and a guarantee of future prosperity. However, the introduction of the common currency in 1999, the growing interdependence through successive EU treaties, and the fiscal pressures of the banking crisis leading to a banking union moved the EU towards deeper integration.

The UK became increasingly reluctant to share its sovereignty with an ever growing number of EU countries on the mainland. It wanted market access, not social and economic interdependence. The discussion around migrants, social welfare benefits, and bureaucracy gone mad are merely symptoms of a deeper British suspicion of EU integration that has contributed to the present showdown.

The successful military campaign in the Falklands in the 1980s, the Reagan-Thatcher axis, the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s after a half century of Cold War, the renewed Anglo-American cooperation in the battleground of the Middle East – Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Syria – right up to the present time have all energised the UK and moved it from trailing the coattails of a distant empire to donning some colourful robes as a significant player on the world stage once more.

The new aura of splendid isolation has produced a nationalism that is somewhat exclusive. It is Sinn Fein nationalism – ourselves alone – rather than Scottish nationalism. Scotland sought its independence to be able to stand on its own but not alone. It is committed to pooling its sovereignty with the EU, including the rest of the UK.

Indeed, a powerful argument for rejecting Brexit may well be in urging the people to preserve the integrity of the UK because the call for independence along the Celtic fringe will surely grow if England alone votes to leave the EU. The Irish vote is of some significance. Among the 46 million people registered to vote in the coming referendum in the UK, some half a million are Irish citizens. There are a few million more of Irish descent.

The strong, pro-Europe position adopted by the Irish government, which argues that the EU is good for Ireland and for the UK, will undoubtedly provide some tangible benefit for the yes campaign when combined with the support of the UK’s Celtic fringe. In this one-hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Rising in Ireland against British rule, the new warm relationship and sense of shared interdependence between Ireland and the UK can provide an emotional boost and selling point for the campaign.

The campaign

The campaign(s) will be crucial to the success or failure of the referendum. A myriad of factors will impinge on the debate and on the decision. The starting and finishing points are the electorate. The people will be brutally honest in the ballot box – if not in the polls. They have been fed a relentless diet of euro scepticism for decades. The tabloids, in particular, have ridiculed the “straight banana”, the bureaucratic bombast of EU directives, EU decision-making, and EU interference. The EU has been reduced to a rather ugly caricature of itself for many British people.

If the Irish referendum experience is anything to go by, the fact that the leadership of the two main political parties in the UK are supporting a yes vote is not a bonus but potentially the kiss of death. The people distrust the establishment and will be instinctively suspicious of what they propose. Whether in government or in opposition, both political parties in a two party state are seen by the people as the political establishment.

One positive that the prime minister, David Cameron, has going for him is his granting of a free vote to his ministerial colleagues. People love free votes. It gives the impression of transparency, independence, and freedom of conscience.

The second positive is the package of concessions he has negotiated with the EU allowing the UK to decline deeper political and economic integration with the EU. The draft ‘New Settlement for the United Kingdom within the European Union’ states clearly that there are “different paths of integration for different Member States allowing these that want to deepen integration to move ahead, while respecting the rights of those which do not want to take such a course”.

The thorny question of free movement of workers from member states is addressed through interpretation of the EU rules to allow member states discretion to restrict free movement of workers “if overriding reasons of public interest make it necessary”. Similarly, the EU clarifies that it has no intention to harmonise social security systems of member states. It would amend regulations regarding the coordination of social security systems, it says, to provide for the indexing of child benefits to the level pertaining in the Member State where the child resides.

Much will depend on the ability of Cameron and his team to sell the benefits of these concessions in halting the march of EU integration and copper-fastening UK sovereignty. The main personalities in the campaign will play an important role. The stage is set for a battle royale between Cameron and Boris Johnson – the “short back and sides” Cameron and the “curved ball” Johnson.

How each gauges the mood of the people will be important. Will the people respond to the positive, rational, political, and economic arguments of Cameron or the negative, witty, put-down presentation of Boris? The appeal of UKIP’s Nigel Farage to the pint-drinking man-in-the-street has potential to damage the yes and no side equally! On the one hand it will provoke reaction, on the other it will confirm prejudice. He will be an interesting sideshow rather than a central player.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Pauline conversion to Europe masks a divided Labour party. Like Cameron, he will be unable to carry many of his own party supporters. So while being perceived as the establishment in the eyes of the public, the reality is that there are no serried ranks of establishment supporters following either of the main party leaders into battle.

The Irish experience of EU treaty referendums

The campaign itself will be important. The Irish referendums on the Treaty of Nice in 2001-2002 and the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008-2009 as well as the Fiscal Compact Treaty of 2012 give interesting insights into the mind-set of the Irish people when deciding on EU matters.

Under the Irish Constitution, all EU treaty changes must be subject to a referendum of the people. To date, all seven EU treaties have been voted on and carried in Ireland, and while the Nice and Lisbon treaties were initially rejected, they were comprehensively carried on the second time of asking.

A number of factors came into play in the two Nice and Lisbon referendums. Both initial campaigns were lacklustre, with very little direct engagement by the political parties or influential sectors of society.

On the second occasion in both referendums, the campaigns were quite different. The lessons of complacency had been learned. The issues that influenced people’s voting were identified through domestic exit polls and subsequent EU polling. Concessions were made by the EU leaders and guarantees were given. Moreover, in both of the second referendums, the politicians had recruited civil society to front new campaigns and to bring a fresh diversity of approach that people responded to more openly and generously. The business community, the farming sector, the trade union movement, the arts sector, sporting organisations and personalities all weighed in on the yes side. Euro sceptics of different hues, including some trade unions, religious organisations, and Sinn Fein, weighed in on the no side.

Finally, the political parties departed from the time honoured way of campaigning for treaty change – the airwaves – and mobilised a ground campaign similar to a general election. By taking the message door-to-door, explaining the main issues, and asking people for their yes vote, the treaties were rendered less remote. They were personalised and potential hostility was neutralised.

Both Nice and Lisbon votes were reversed and comprehensively won on 2:1 majorities on the second time of asking. The Brexit referendum is not directly comparable to the Nice or Lisbon Treaties in that there will not be two bites of the cherry. It will be more like the Fiscal Compact Treaty, which was subject to a single vote of acceptance or rejection. It was do or die. Civil society played a major role once again. Door-to-door canvassing by the political parties was widespread and effective.

Moreover, the context was highly charged. Ireland had suffered a collapse in its banking system and its construction industry had imploded. The Troika – the IMF, ECB and the EC – were effectively running the country. A €64 billion financial bailout was in place and Ireland could not borrow from the traditional money markets, except at exorbitant interest rates.

The Fiscal Compact Treaty was the mechanism whereby EU funding would be put in place to guarantee against a banking meltdown in the future. It established the vehicle that would contain a substantial insurance fund to bail out a collapsed economy in the future. Fear of the unknown in the middle of the greatest financial crisis in the history of the state was a powerful motivation.

While people were desperately angry with the government due to the state of the economy, nevertheless the prospect of a second bailout and the absence of a secure, cheap source of funds was an even more appalling vista. The vote was carried 60:40.


Some or all of the factors touched on already will come into play in the Brexit referendum in the UK. The presumption that logic and rational argument will carry the day is without foundation. People’s attention has a short time span and argument becomes tedious. People switch off, and they revert very quickly to personal experience or indeed personal prejudice.

If either of the two main protagonists (David Cameron or Boris Johnson) can take the referendum by the scruff of the neck, seize the initiative, and front the campaign through the strength of their personality, bold and sincere leadership will invariability carry the day.

Joe Costello is a former member of the Irish Parliament and Minister for Trade And Development. He was Labour Party spokesperson on European Affairs and subsequently Chair of the European Affairs Committee.

This piece is co-published with openDemocracy.

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Photo by Alejandro Luengo on Unsplash

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