STEPHEN COLLINS, Political Editor
Irish Times
2 June 2012

ANALYSIS: The outcome is an important step for the country and a decisive victory for the Government and its allies on the Yes side

THE TASK of persuading the voters to back the treaty represented a huge challenge for the Coalition and it could very easily have gone horribly wrong.

The failure to carry the first Lisbon treaty referendum marked the beginning of the end for Brian Cowen and his government and Enda Kenny could have been under no illusions that defeat would have been a political disaster for his administration.

Only last autumn an Irish Times poll showed a two-to-one majority of the electorate prepared to vote No if asked to approve a treaty incorporating fiscal disciplines.

Persuading people to put aside their resentment at the aspects of the EU/IMF bailout, particularly public spending cuts and taxpayer liability for bank debt, did not look like an easy task.

The key to turning the public mood around was a strong committed campaign allied to a clear and simple message.

On the campaign front Fine Gael rose to Kenny’s challenge to campaign as if it was a general election. There was much more door-to-door canvassing than normal in an EU referendum, with the party focusing on areas where it is strong.

Director of elections Simon Coveney and Minister for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton ran an effective campaign that got the Fine Gael vote out.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore also campaigned hard and while Labour did not have the same visible presence on the ground as Fine Gael, the task facing him and his party was much more difficult.

From the beginning opinion polls showed that while there was strong middle class backing for the fiscal treaty, there was considerable opposition in working class areas. Labour TDs found the going tough on the ground but those who followed the example of director of elections Joan Burton and campaigned hard were able to swing things around a little.

The nature of the fiscal treaty gave the Government a clear message to sell. Red herrings like conscription, abortion, nuclear power and neutrality could not be dragged into the campaign.

The Government also managed, by and large, to keep some of its own controversial policies like property tax and water charges that arise directly from the bailout, out of the debate.

A key element in the Yes argument was that access to future funding from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) would be cut off in the event of a No vote. That unambiguous fact helped to concentrate the minds of voters who might have been tempted to vote No in protest at Government policy or EU-wide austerity measures.

Almost 150 years ago that great novelist and student of politics Anthony Trollope, who lived in Ireland for over a decade, said that, contrary to the stereotype, Irish people had a better grasp of economic realities than their English counterparts.

“We hear much of their spendthrift nature but extravagance is not in the nature of an Irishman. He will count the shillings in a pound much more accurately than an Englishman and will with much more certainty get 12 pennyworth from each.”

When it came to the poll a clear majority of the Irish electorate looked at their personal circumstances, counted the euros in their pockets and made the decision to play it safe and vote Yes. The fact that nine out of 10 academic economists backed a Yes vote reinforced the message.

If the result helped the Government parties it was also a significant boost for Fianna Fáil and particularly party leader Micheál Martin. He had a difficult call to make as the campaign started when his former deputy leader Eamon Ó Cuív came out in favour of a No vote.

Martin cracked the whip and ordered Ó Cuív to hold his tongue for the campaign. After an initial protest the Galway West TD did as he was told and Fianna Fáil gave unambiguous backing to the Yes campaign. In narrow political terms Martin had as much to lose as Kenny from a No vote but he campaigned with conviction and delivered the bulk of Fianna Fail supporters.

As for the No campaign, there will be serious disappointment at the outcome. The combination of Sinn Féin, the United Left Alliance and most of the technical group in the Dáil meant there were around 30 TDs on the No side, the biggest anti-treaty bloc since 1972. Yet by contrast with the last two occasions a European referendum has been carried at the first attempt. Sinn Féin led the No campaign and while it got a lot of airtime and made big inroads in opinion polls, it ultimately failed to achieve what it accomplished from a much lower base in 2008.

A variety of left-wing TDs probably did themselves no harm with their No campaign, attracting huge publicity and broadly staying in tune with their supporters. Shane Ross, though, took a risk by coming on for a No vote in Dublin South, which had the State’s highest Yes vote.

With the referendum tucked away, the real challenge now for the Government is to try and play a positive role in the ongoing attempt to save the euro, while getting a better deal for Ireland on bank debt in the process.

Ireland has done its bit to save the euro but the big decisions will now be made in Brussels and Berlin.