Book Reviews
& Book Forum

Search / Archive
Back to 10/96





ireland, irish, ulster, ireland, irish, ulster, Sinn Féin, Irish America

Referendums 'R Us?

(Quintin Oliver, Business Eye)

The news that reached me recently that one of the DUP demands in forthcoming Talks would be a Referendum filled me with dread. Why?

The argument goes that the DUP will want to bust Hain's 24 November deadline, almost out of spite; to prove their macho credentials; to show they are in control and to demonstrate their independence from the despised 'two governments'. More seriously, it would allow them to claim they had indeed 'smashed' the Belfast Agreement and then in early 2007 begun to negotiate afresh.

It would also allow them more time – since they have not yet prepared their electorate for a deal, and to judge the various IMC reports and IRA sincerity in its promises. There is still much concern within the DUP ranks that any Paisley / Adams rapprochement – with or without the handshake on the White House lawn - will merely look like Good Friday Mark II, and that they, in turn, will suffer the charge of 'slow learning' as Seamus Mallon memorably remarked of GFA I, as regards Sinn Féin vis-à-vis Sunningdale.

But why would a referendum be a bad idea? As someone who helped design and run the "YES" Campaign of 1998, I have some experience of these matters, and have since advised on referendums around the world, as part of my political consultancy.

  • First, the referendum is a creative and unusual constitutional tool, best deployed to engage the citizenry in big, crossroads issues; certainly not as a propaganda stunt (1973 'Border poll', perhaps?), delaying tactic (1979 Devolution referendums in Scotland and Wales?) or to evade internal party splits (1975 EEC membership confirmation vote?). Which would this represent?

  • Second, most referendums are lost, believe it or not. Dr Gary Sussman's work in Tel Aviv University has tracked more than 10,000 such outings to the polls since 1700. Politicians persist in believing them to be similar to what they certainly do know about – elections. But history shows how voters do not treat them like elections, fail to take the party line so assiduously, and can punish what they see as 'being taken for granted'. (e.g. Ireland on the Nice Treaty, first time round)

  • Third, whereas Good Friday prompted a clear Yes: No split, and a 'fair fight' between proponents and opponents, a 2007 version is unlikely to be so clear. Either it will be seen as a device (under which the DUP will shield itself) or as so obvious ('if all the parties now agree, why are we, the voters, being asked to rubber stamp their work?') as to potentially provoke a backlash (e.g. the French and Dutch European Constitution referendums). Or worse, it could create the conditions for opposition to flourish.

  • Fourth, as de Gaulle once opined: 'the trouble with referendums is that voters tend to answer the wrong question'. In 1998 here, voters were focussed on the constitutional issue, but in 2007, any number of distractions could attract their attention to give verdicts on extraneous matters (e.g. mid-term blues, poor economy, latest atrocity).

  • Fifth, economics often plays a part in referendums (and, as the reader can see, I support the use of the proper plural 'referendums' – a series of separate things to be decided – and not its faux plural, 'referenda' – a collection of decisions); as a touchstone of our return to normality, perhaps that would be a good thing? 'Prime Minister' Brown has for long wondered why we won't behave like rational participants in a marketplace, rather than as crazed, conflict-driven purists. Research by Professor Mads Qvortrup, the world expert on these matters, shows that citizens are less inclined to vote 'Yes' (whatever the topic) in good economic times; the converse also holds true.

  • Sixth, public participation is key in peace-building. The main reason for the failure of the 2004 Cyprus referendum was the typical UN-led 'élite accommodation' nature of the Burgenstock, Switzerland, package. No-one knew what had been agreed; no-one felt ownership; the politicians were distrusted; suspicion about sell-out reigned; the voters backed their caution and concern, sticking with the status quo. They voted 'No' in large numbers. Will these Talks be more open than in 1998? Will they remain in St Andrews until settlement? How will the parties report back to their opinion-formers? Has the DUP acquired SF's legendary skills of massaging, nudging, and taking the electorate easily to water? Or are they stuck at following local opinion?

  • Seventh, political campaigning and funding capacity does make a real difference, as the Australian referendum on the monarchy showed; a small but imaginative and well-resourced backlash against the conventional wisdom stole the show and stopped the consensus. But, in our context, will civil society mobilise as it did in 1998 to secure an 82% participation rate? Will the expat community dig deep to fund a campaign, as they did to the tune of £½ million? What will excite the voter about this outing to the polls, in an era of declining turnout?

  • Eighth, how will the media behave? They are still stung by the charge that they have offered less than critical support to the peace process; they generally don't come from, associate with, or like the DUP; will they turn turtle and question or undermine a shabby settlement? (e.g. the North East referendum in England in 2005 on regional government, which they derided).

  • Ninth, what will this settlement represent, other than a refinement of both GFA itself and the December 2004 'Comprehensive Settlement', largely agreed by SF and DUP, again behind closed doors. Decommissioning is done (well, very nearly, almost…), the prisoners are out, 'consent' is conceded, North / South and East / West structures are created. Yes, D'Hondt posts, A Shared Future, collective responsibility, accountability of Ministers, and voting systems could all be improved, but will those arcane matters get out the vote?

What will be the defining issues? 'Paisley says "Yes" may be enough. Or maybe not. Don't go there is my advice.

October 30, 2006

This article appeared in the October 2006 edition of the Business Eye.