Last week, Ireland voted ‘Yes’ to the European Fiscal Stability Treaty, despite some predictions that the country would vote No. Michael Courtney argues that Irish voters knew that voting Yes was the only way to secure future bailouts, should they be needed. A No vote was simply too risky.
There are some intriguing aspects to Ireland’s referendum on the European Fiscal Stability Treaty. There is immense anger among the electorate towards the Irish government and decision-makers at the European level. There were a high number of undecided voters in the polls preceding voting day and there was low voter turnout of about 50 per cent. ‘Second-order’ theories of voting, and past experience, would lead to the prediction that Ireland was highly likely to vote against the Treaty. But this was not the case. Why was a referendum necessary at all? And why, contrary to recent experience, did Ireland vote in favour of an EU treaty without having to be asked twice? The short answer is that this EU referendum was a ‘first-order’ poll.
Ever since a man named Raymond Crotty brought a legal challenge in the Irish Supreme Court in 1987 against the government’s decision to ratify the Single European Act through the Dáil without reference to the electorate in a referendum, a deliberative poll has been necessary for every major alteration to Ireland’s relationship to the European Union. This is on the basis that any transfer of sovereignty from the Irish government to an external body must be directly sanctioned by the Irish electorate. This provision has frustrated European leaders who had to wait an additional year and through second referendums before the Nice and Lisbon treaties could become law, and in case of the latter at a time when every other country in the union has resolved to ratify EU treaties simply by an act of parliament. (…)
Some advocates on the ‘No’ side, such as businessman Declan Ganley were urging people to vote ‘No’ in order to get a better deal on the bank debt. Thus the perception was that the blame and the burden of the crisis are being unfairly shouldered by Ireland. From the outset any educated guess would be that the Irish would vote ‘No’ initially and probably re-run the referendum later in the year subsequently voting ‘Yes’. The clouds did not produce a storm. The referendum result returned a clear vote in favour of ratification. The simplest explanation for the prima facie separation of theory and practice is that the conditions of ‘second-order’ voting did not apply.
Does this mean that Irish voters were clearly focused on and were in favour of the 3% deficit and 0.5% structural deficit rules, rather than their anger at property charges and Angela Merkel? This is unlikely. There was little engagement with the substantive measures of the treaty during the campaign, bar one. The preamble to the Treaty states that access to the EU’s new bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism, will be conditional on ratification of the Treaty. This provision tipped the referendum from a ‘second-order’ to a ‘first-order’ election. The framers of the Treaty linked ratification with voters’ pockets and the game changed. (…)
This is how the vote became ‘first-order’. If Ireland voted ‘No’, the markets might have been jittery about Ireland’s ability to fund itself, since it would then have been locked out ESM funding, and interest rates on new debt would have been extremely high. If Ireland has access to the ESM, the markets will know there is ‘Plan B’, will lower the interest rate on Irish bonds and the country can return to them for funding and paradoxically not need a second bailout. A ‘Yes’ vote was the safer and cheaper option for the state and the Irish voted accordingly.
Also contrary to previous experience, low voter turnout favoured the ‘Yes’ side. This is because many ‘No’ and undecided- leaning-No voters felt that there was little point in turning out. If a ‘No’ prevailed Ireland would be asked to vote again until eventually delivering a ‘Yes’. So apathy prevailed over anger on the ‘No’ side to dampen turnout, giving the ‘Yes’ side a clear run. This raises the question of whether it may be time to reconsider allowing Irish governments to ratify European treaties simply by an act of parliament.
This is an edited version of an article published on LSE EUROPP. See the original here.
Michael Courtney is a Government of Ireland Phd candidate in the Department of Political Science, Trinity College Dublin. His research examines the impact of Irish MPs’ social backgrounds on their political attitudes. He holds a degree in Economics, Politics and Law from Dublin City University.