Focus On: Ireland's May 31 Referendum

May 28, 2012, 1:48 p.m.

On May 31, Irish citizens will head to the polls to vote “Yes” or “No” on the country’s referendum regarding the European Union’s Fiscal Treaty. ((The official name of the treaty is the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union. Although it goes by various names in different member states, within this document it will be referred to as the European Fiscal Treaty.))

The European Fiscal Treaty

In reaction to the economic crisis that spread across much of the European bloc, a German-led call for stricter budget discipline spread across the European Union. On March 2, twenty-five of the European Union’s member states leaders signed the European Fiscal Treaty, which looks to incorporate tighter limits on budget deficits and public debt into national constitutions as well as automatic correction mechanisms if this budget discipline is violated. ((Two European Union member states, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic, refused to sign the treaty.)) It is the hope that this treaty will prevent further repetition of the sovereign debt crisis that has occurred within the Eurozone. ((Euractiv, 25 EU Leaders Sign Fiscal Compact Treaty. March 2 2012.)) In order for the European Fiscal Treaty to become law; it must first be ratified by 12 of the 17 Eurozone member countries. ((The Eurozone is the Economic and Monetary Union of the European Union which includes 17 of the EU’s 27 member states who use the Euro as their common currency.)) By the end of 2012, all of the signatory member states are expected to finish the national ratification process.

Background Regarding Referendums

In contrast with the other signatory member states that will ratify the treaty in their national parliaments, in Ireland it must be ratified by referendum. In the landmark 1986 Irish Court case, Raymond Crotty v. An Taoiseach, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that if Ireland was going to surrender any more sovereignty to the European Union with treaty changes, the Irish constitution would need to be amended which meant it must first be brought to a nationwide referendum. ((The Eurozone is the Economic and Monetary Union of the European Union which includes 17 of the EU’s 27 member states who use the Euro as their common currency.)) Various electoral laws have been put in place in order to further define the conduct surrounding a referendum votes. ((Irish electoral laws regarding referendums include Articles 27, 46 and 47 of the Constitution of Ireland; the Electoral Act 1992; the Referendum Act 1994; the Electoral (Amendment) Act 1996; the Electoral Act 1997; the Referendum Act 1998; the Referendum Act 2001; the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001; the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2004, the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2006; and the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Act 2011.)) The Referendum Act of 1994 helped further define the time period surrounding a constitutional referendum; it states that once a Bill containing a referendum proposal has been passed by both chambers ((The Irish Oireachtas is a bicameral parliament; its two houses are the Seanad Éireann (Senate) with 60 seats and the Dáil Éireann (House of Representatives) with 166 seats.)) of Ireland’s parliament, the Oireachtas, then the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government must set a date for the vote to occur. It also expressed that the vote must take place between 30 to 90 days after the order was made. ((Irish Statue Book, Referendum Act, 1994. May 15 2012)) The passage of Referendum Act of 1998 outlawed the use of public money being spent for the promotion of government-approved referendum position as well as created the independent statutory body known as the Referendum Commission. ((Irish Statute Book, Referendum Act 1998)) This Referendum Commission is to be established in advance, in order administer information to the Irish public regarding relevant subject matter on the referendum as well as encouraging the electorate to vote. Since the Referendum Act of 2001, the Referendum Commission no longer has the ability to formulate arguments for or against a referendum’s proposal. ((The Referendum Commission, What is the Role of the Referendum Commission?)) Despite the best efforts to effectively administer and promote referendums in Ireland, in recent years passing EU-related referendums has been problematic. The Irish voted “No” to both referendums on the Treaty of Nice and the Treaty of Lisbon, which at the time was shocking for both the Irish government and the European Union as a whole. A major contributing factor to the no votes for the Nice and Lisbon referendums was that much of the Irish electorate felt they lacked critical information regarding the content of the treaties, 39 percent and 42 percent respectively. ((Sinnott, Richard, and Johan A. Elkink. Attitudes and Behaviour in the Second Referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon.)) Although these treaties were eventually passed by holding a second vote, these failures have made the Irish government weary of holding EU-related referendums. Despite consulting with state lawyers to make sure it was absolutely necessary to hold a referendum vote on these treaty changes, Taoiseach Enda Kenny ((Taoiseach is the Irish head of government and Prime Minister.)) informed the Oireachtas that Ireland would be moving forward with a nationwide vote on the European Fiscal Treaty. ((Euractiv, Ireland Calls Referendum on EU Fiscal Treaty. February 29 2012))

The Irish Referendum on the European Fiscal Treaty

Currently, the debate rages on what the best course of action will be for Ireland regarding the European Fiscal Treaty. After the collapse of the country’s banking sector and the subsequent bailout, many worry about how the vote will affect Ireland’s fragile economy. The European Commission has stated that any member state who fails to ratify the treaty is not privy to the permanent emergency funds, known as the European Stability Mechanism, after 2013. Although Ireland has been the most successful of the three countries that were bailed out by the EU/IMF, a rejection of the referendum will also cast doubt on the country’s commitment to the single currency. ((Euractiv, Ireland Calls Referendum on EU Fiscal Treaty. February 29 2012.)) Furthermore, the verdict in Brussels is that, unlike with past treaties, where Ireland was able to negotiate EU concessions for a second referendum vote, the country will only get one vote on this treaty. ((Euractiv, Ireland Calls Referendum on EU Fiscal Treaty. February 29 2012.)) Nevertheless, support for the EU in Ireland has cooled significantly in the face of austerity and the emigration and unemployment it has brought with it. ((The National, Irish Vote Could be Latest Blow for EU’s Austerity Advocates. May 15 2012)) Yes Vote Led by the Ireland’s two governing parties, Fine Gael and Labour, as well as the main opposition Fianna Fáil, the “Yes” campaign has latched on to these economic fears and made the case for the treaty as essential for national recovery. Supporters of the treaty believe that a successful ratification of the treaty would be a giant step towards providing stability and giving businesses the confidence to invest in Ireland. ((McDonald, Henry. Irish Referendum No to EU Treaty Will Prompt Euro Exit, Business Leaders Warn. May 15 2012.)) Furthermore, they argue that a “No” vote would create an atmosphere of nervousness; Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan has warned that a “No” vote would be “leap in the dark” and a “dangerous leap that Irish citizens should not take.” Mr. Noonan expressed that by passing this referendum and showing the world that the Irish could run their own affairs, it would make Ireland a stark contrast to another Eurozone member who received a bailout, Greece. ((Keena, Colm. No Vote ‘A Leap in the Dark’ – Noonan. May 16 2012.)) No Vote Main opposition party Sinn Féin, the United Left Alliance and smaller groups from across the political spectrum are urging Irish voters to defend democracy and vote against economic austerity. Many of these groups have joined the Campaign Against the Austerity Treaty, trying to create a united voice against what they see as permanent austerity in Ireland. Sinn Féin Finance spokesman Pearse Doherty that it is the duty of the “No” campaign to help the Irish people understand that “…if they are suffering as a result of austerity, they should not agree to put austerity into national law by ratifying the treaty." ((RTE News. Govt Insists Position ‘Crystal Clear’ Despite Richard Bruton Comment on Second Referendum. May 18 2012.)) Furthermore, the “No” campaign has claimed that by adopting the treaty will make reform harder and accused the government of misleading Irish citizens about how many extra austerity measures are actually in the treaty itself. ((Minihan, Mary. Group of Economists Urge No Vote. May 16 2012.)) Bad Timing? Recent developments with the Greek parliamentary and French presidential elections have left many in Ireland wondering what this means for their country’s future, and if a vote at this time is either prudent or necessary. Members of the Dáil Éireann have called for the vote to be postponed citing the current uncertainty in Europe about the future of the treaty.  Deputy Shane Ross proposed a bill that would give the government the power to postpone the referendum until after the next Greek elections in June and the new policies of President Hollande take shape. ((RTE News. Taoiseach Confronted by Protesters While Campaigning for the Fiscal Treaty in Athlone. May 14 2012)) Despite these calls for a halt to the vote, the governing coalition and the Referendum Commission has insisted that it cannot be postponed. According to the Commission, the Act states that once a date has been set for a referendum the date cannot be changed unless a General Election is called for another date. In turn, this has led leaders of the “No” campaign have said that the government’s refusal to postpone the vote gives the Irish people only one option: vote no. ((BreakingNews.ie. Commission: General Election is only means of delaying referendum. May 15 2012))

What's Next?

Recent opinion polls have given the “Yes” campaign an edge. A Millward Brown Lansdowne poll of 1,000 adults across all Irish constituencies found that 37 percent polled will vote yes and 24 percent will vote no. The poll also finds that 35 percent of Irish still do not know how they wish to vote in the upcoming referendum and four percent of voters saying that they will not vote. ((RTE News. Undecided Voters Hold Key to Treaty Outcome – Poll. May 17 2012.)) When undecided voters’ opinions are excluded, the “Yes” side is ahead 60 percent to 40 percent. Despite this comfortable margin, the number of currently undecided voters makes it clear that they hold the key to this referendum vote. These results sent a strong message to both campaigns on the level of work that must be done in order to ensure that the Irish electorate feels more informed and engaged than they did concerning past EU-related referendums. That fact alone may make the difference for either side on Election Day.

comments powered by Disqus