Ireland has a written constitution which can only be amended via a referendum. Referendums are common, with each EU treaty change for example requiring a referendum (sometimes two which will be discussed in detail later). There are frequently more than one referendum per year and there have been 11 on the EU. This year for example there was the abortion referendum in May and one scheduled for the 26th of October on the repeal the offence of publication or utterance of blasphemous matter. The Irish therefore have lots of practice and the UK may be able to learn some lessons. Indeed the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny offered to advise David Cameron but was politely refused. Here are some lessons that might be learnt from the Irish experience.
Never Underestimate the Protest Vote
Even in Ireland with a best in class voting system (as judged by the Electoral Reform Society), Proportional Representation (PR) with a single transferable vote, some people feel disenfranchised and view a referendum as a opportunity to give the government a bloody nose. This seems to occur totally independently of the topic of the referendum and is estimated to run to 5-10% of the electorate.
It was always likely that this effect would occur in the UK, and indeed be amplified for two reasons. Firstly the antiquated UK First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system disenfranchises voters in all but a handful of marginal constituencies. Secondly the Brexit Referendum was a once in a lifetime opportunity for many people to have a meaningful vote.
Referendums can be Hijacked by Protest Movements
In addition to personal protest votes, a referendum gives an opening for protest movements to organise and create an anti referendum movement again totally independent of the actual referendum topic.
Allow Enough Time to air all the arguments and Educate the Public
The Irish Abortion Referendum took about two years to run its course, starting with a new experiment in Irish democracy, a Citizens Assembly. Every effort was made to air all the arguments. This was in total contrast to the Brexit referendum which was run over four months and the remain campaign was confined almost exclusively to economic arguments – simply due to lack of time.
Matthew O’Toole who was chief Downing St. Press Officer on Europe and Economic Affairs during the Brexit campaign speaks of his frustration at the narrow focus of the referendum (Irish Passport podcast at c 50m in). Matthew is from the Nationalist Community in Northern Ireland and had an excellent understanding of the risks to the GFA, the subtle intermingling and overlapping of multiple identities and the difficulties Brexit would cause for the Irish border. Almost everyone in Ireland both North and South (with the exception perhaps of the DUP and their voters) understood the risks to NI posed by Brexit. To be fair both John Major and Tony Blair also understood this, but almost no airtime or bandwidth was devoted to this problem through the entire referendum campaign.
It is no surprise at all to the Irish that the Border issue is one of the major roadblocks to Brexit, and yet it seems to have taken many in Britain by surprise.
Referendums should be binary choices between known outcomes
This should not need to be stated as it is core to the Referendum 101 handbook and yet, bizarrely, the Leave campaign in the Brexit Referendum was allowed to take a Mirror of Erised approach, where dozens or even 17.4 million possible outcomes were sold to the public. This was of course of incalculable strategic advantage to the Leave campaign – possibly worth in the region of 20-30 percentage points. Even more so than the Scottish referendum it was imperative that a detailed white paper, running to several volumes and thousand of pages, as to how Brexit Britain would look, was produced. This was almost certainly the single greatest strategic error of the entire campaign and has led to the uncertainty even now as to the “landing zone”.
Know your electorate, what their real concerns are and tackle them head-on
One of the advantages of being a small country like Ireland is that there are fewer places to hide and that politicians tend to be much more tuned in to public opinion. The UK has the disadvantage in this regard of being a large country and have a greater disconnect between politicians and the public. The Westminster bubble is aptly named. An equivalent Leinster House bubble does not really exist. In the first referendum on the Lisbon treaty it was clear that the loss of an EU commissioner was considered a demotion to being a second class country within the EU. Armed with this knowledge Ireland was successful in changing the Lisbon Treaty.
For a substantial number of the Brexit voting public the elephant in the room was immigration. The distinction also between immigration and Freedom of Movement (FoM) is, almost uniquely of any EU country, not widely understood. It was imperative in the UK for the Government to explain the case for FoM, which is extraordinary strong. The case was however never made; indeed Anna Soubry, who speaks passionately and eloquently on the subject, specifically asked Cameron to be allowed to do so but was prevented. It was not that the fear of immigration was unknown, it was the lack of leadership, verging on cowardice, that was and is the real issue. To be fair it is not only the Tories but also Labour who are unwilling to show honest leadership.
Be Wary of External Interference
Ireland is a small country with a population of c 4.75m and the possibility of external interference is high, particularly with the Irish diaspora estimates at c 70m. In the recent Abortion Referendum all Facebook and Google ads were banned as the was considerable evidence of substantial external funding – particularly from right wing American groups. Had a similar ban been introduced in the UK, the referendum outcome may have been different.
Only hold referendums when strictly necessary
The Irish hold a lot of referendums because it is a constitutional requirement. Holding a referendum because of internal party difference is neither a good idea nor likely to be looked upon favourably by outsiders including the EU. For some Brexiteers one prime hope of a positive (Leave) referendum result was its use it as leverage to gain further concessions from the EU. The Irish did this very successfully with the Lisbon treaty and kept its commissioner and various other opt outs. The current agriculture commissioner is Phil Hogan of Fine Gael.
People and Electorates Make Mistakes and Always Leave an Opening for a Second Referendum
As John Maynard Keynes famously said “When the facts change I change my mind – what do you do sir?” If the facts change referendums can be rerun. For example after the Lisbon treaty was modified to take account of Irish concerns it was perfectly legitimate, one might say almost morally imperative, to rerun the referendum. The ludicrous accusations that the Irish gave the wrong answer and were forced to rerun the Lisbon Referendum by the EU is nonsense, even parroted by otherwise sensible individuals such as Yanis Varoufakis.
Even though EU treaty change is not possible in the case of the UK, the facts have certainly changed and the UK should be allowed to change its mind.
People Respond Best to Passion and Real Human Stories
In the Irish Abortion Referendum it generally agreed that it was the response to the harrowing case studies that swung the day rather than statistical or philosophical arguments. Real passion was also on display. The focus of the Remain campaign in the Brexit referendum with its narrow focus on the economic downsides of Brexit and the negative “project fear” approach was a weak strategy. The often quoted lines from Yeats – The Second Coming “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” have seldom been more apt.
The Brexit referendum was a text book example in how not to do things and it is surprising that given the ineptness of the Remain campaign the result was so close.