Thursday 12 December 2019

James Downey: Yes camp looks strong but plenty of time for an upset

SOMETIMES individual winners and losers can be identified in the course of an election or referendum campaign long before the voters go to the polls. This is strikingly true of the findings of the Irish Independent-Millward Brown Lansdowne survey which we publish today.

This time, Micheal Martin has won -- for the moment anyway -- the struggle to strengthen his leadership of the Fianna Fail party. A convincing 72pc of Fianna Fail supporters assert their intention to vote Yes to the European fiscal treaty. That amounts to a firm endorsement of his leadership and a rebuff to the dissident Deputy Eamon O Cuiv.

By contrast, the Tanaiste and Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore, has suffered a definite if not a serious setback. Only 59pc of Labour supporters in this poll say they intend to vote Yes -- although the party has engaged in a vigorous campaign.

Undoubtedly the main reason for this relatively poor showing is the opposition of several trade unions to the treaty. The Government's response, or lack of response, to this opposition has been surprising.

The SIPTU leader, Jack O'Connor, has named his price for supporting the pact: an economic stimulus package, presumably little different from the one that French President Francois Hollande hopes to negotiate with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Why has the Government not publicly agreed with him, at least in principle? If it wants to wait and see what the Merkel-Hollande talks produce, why not say so?

This is only one of many illustrations of how the Government, and supporters of a Yes vote more generally, have waged a poor campaign.

They should not be criticised too severely. Their task has been exceptionally difficult. Most voters do not understand the fiscal pact and have made very little effort to understand it. And the voters for their part should not be too heavily blamed.

Economists are not convinced of the treaty's merits. They tend to accept it only grudgingly, as one part of a solution to the economic crisis. The other main part, a plan to promote growth and employment, is so far missing.

Even economists have difficulty in coming to terms with the concept of a "structural deficit". It is hardly surprising that Irish voters should have at least equal difficulty. More relevant, perhaps, is that even the treaty's staunchest advocates find it hard to point to any concrete advantages of endorsing it.

The overwhelming argument in favour of voting Yes is negative: "uncertainty" about the consequences of voting No.

In fact, uncertainty is much too mild a word.

Nobody can tell precisely what consequences would flow from rejection of the treaty in Ireland, just as nobody can tell precisely what consequences the rest of Europe would suffer after a Greek exit from the euro currency. The only certainty is that they would be terrible. But if ministers, Michael Noonan for example, try to point this out, they will be -- have been -- accused of scaremongering.

This survey finds that 85pc of us want to stay in the single currency, but 35pc of No voters want us out. Without any question, only a tiny handful of the 35pc have any idea what an exit from the currency might mean in either economic or political terms.

Even the better-informed advocates of a No vote have made little if any credible effort to outline a plausible post-rejection scenario (for example, one in which Ireland defaults on its debts and establishes its own currency) but have concentrated on analysing the fiscal pact itself.

In the circumstances, the public reaction has been predictably apathetic. On the whole, this must suit the Government and particularly the Fine Gael party.

This opinion poll finds that 85pc of Fine Gael supporters intend to vote Yes. Support is also strong in the higher socio-economic groups and among older people, in other words those likeliest to go out and vote. In addition, the Government should be fortified by the knowledge that an overwhelming majority want us to say in the euro currency and would be reluctant to do anything that would jeopardise our membership.

All of this should mean that the Government can approach the final two weeks of the referendum campaign with considerable confidence.

But all governments should keep in their minds -- and not far from the forefront of their minds -- the Law of Unintended Consequences and the fact that a week, never mind a fortnight, is a long time in politics.

Conferring a favour on SF and the United Left Alliance was doubtless the last thing the Government wanted when it announced the fiscal pact referendum, but in the early days of the campaign both groups rejoiced in the opportunity to denounce an unpopular measure from an unpopular government.

Sinn Fein saw it as a chance to parade established and rising stars like Mary Lou McDonald, Pearse Doherty and Peadar Toibin.

Unwisely, the party also engaged in misquoting leading economists and implausible arguments about future sources of public funding.

It is too soon to assess whether that had much influence on the public one way or another. But the referendum result may give a clue as to the advantage or otherwise of allying oneself with Sinn Fein.

Irish Independent

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