Comment: Last week's Irish referendum should worry Alex Salmond

Samuel Lawes: 'The restrictive 'yes or no' question annoyed many voters, who wanted a less stark choice.'
Samuel Lawes: 'The restrictive 'yes or no' question annoyed many voters, who wanted a less stark choice.'

By Samuel Lawes

Last week Ireland treated itself to a referendum. Voters were asked whether they would like to see their version of the House of Lords – the Senate or 'an tSeanad' in Gaelic – abolished. Anti-government mood is currently hanging heavy in the Irish air and abolitionists have claimed €20 million could be saved by scrapping the House, which they say rarely does anything anyway.

So you might have thought voters would have jumped at the chance. Yet, albeit by a small margin, they said no. Pundits were surprised, but they shouldn't have been. The result was predictable – and it will be a source of worry for Alex Salmond and encouragement for David Cameron

First, a quick look at Ireland's politics. Growing up there, I remember being perennially confused by the apparent non-existence of ideological differences between the main parties. So it seems odd that such a fundamentally constitutional matter should be fought on party-political lines. Yet it almost exclusively was. Regardless—or as a result—the anti-politics mood hit both government and opposition in the form of a turnout of less than 40%.

There are already causes of concern for Salmond here. He should note the anti-politics backlash which tends to hit governing parties' sides in referenda. Although Salmond has tried to turn this mood into an anti-Westminster sentiment (itself a divisive tactic that may not impress voters) he runs the risk of suffering a similar problem. To counter this, the SNP has been spending like mad. In the run-up to the vote, we can expect some more 'gifts' for voters.

The other notable group supporting the Senate's abolition was Sinn Féin. It is debatable whether association with this 'extreme-ish' party helped or hindered the Yes campaign. It may certainly have worried some moderate voters.

And aside from seeing the No result as an anti-government vote (the irony of retaining politicians to spite politicians not lost on me) there are a lot of other reasons why Ireland might have rejected the Senate's abolition. Enda Kenny, the Irish PM (Taoiseach), was extremely reluctant to campaign for it, despite himself proposing and backing the move.

Then there was a second, less controversial referendum held simultaneously. It perhaps distracted voters by asking them how they felt about modifying the Irish courts system as well (that one passed).

And the restrictive 'yes or no' question also annoyed many voters, who wanted a less stark choice. As did a general lack of information. An old school friend told me: "I certainly don't know enough on the subject to make an informed remark on it."

All this should worry the SNP still further. For one thing, the party's rhetoric has been described as anti-English, distancing them from the moderate centre ground on which many votes are to be found. And while Salmond can't be accused of not campaigning, he faces the risk that may have spooked Kenny in the first place – it will be, at least in part, a referendum on him.

The question of a single, stark, dramatic choice also weighs in against Salmond's SNP. If you confront voters with the yes-or-no choice of making a big, irreversible change or not, they often err on the side of caution.

There is the question itself to consider. Irish voters were asked: 'Do you agree with the proposal to amend the Constitution: Abolition of an tSeanad Bill?' Another childhood friend and No voter remarked: "The question itself was worded almost as if to trick voters into voting yes."

Salmond created a media storm earlier this year when he revealed the most biased question of any referendum ever held in the United Kingdom. Academics, independent experts and opposing politicians cried foul: the 'do you agree…?' tone and positive language is designed to prompt a Yes vote. This decision to play tricks with the referendum question may yet come back to haunt Salmond.

If these factors should worry the SNP, they should surely hearten the Better Together camp, and in particular David Cameron.  But there is another reason why the PM will have watched Ireland's vote with interest. He has politically committed himself to holding a referendum on Britain's EU membership if the Conservatives win the next election. Even if another coalition is formed (and that's quite likely) he will be under monumental pressure to hold the vote if he is prime minister after 2015.

Why does Ireland's vote matter here? Because it demonstrates a fascinating feature of referenda – and perhaps the biggest reason why the Irish referendum returned a No vote. Referendum results tend to favour the status-quo. This was the case in 1975, when Britain chose to stay in the EU despite public opinion to the contrary. It was the case with nine out of the ten votes on elected mayors last year. And as for the AV referendum… yes, well. Enough said. There is an academic case for this as well, and the general rule held true in Ireland last Friday despite a clear majority in the polls for change.

This, perhaps more than anything else, is an indicator of the challenges facing Salmond and British eurosceptics. Both referenda on our two great Unions are inherently more likely to return 'no' votes. That being said, plenty of plebiscites do not – and in both cases everything is still to play for.

So, in the wonderfully rhetorical words of a relieved Irish senator last Friday, I'll close by simply saying: "The next thing is – what happens next?"

Samuel Lawes is a freelance journalist living in Istanbul. You can read his blog here.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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