Thursday, September 18, 2014

The 2001 Irish Referendum and parallels to the Indyref

A guest post by Scott Hamilton

As we move into referendum day, it is instructive to look at an interesting example from the recent history of constitutional referenda - namely the Irish vote in 2001 on the Treaty of Nice. Whilst the referendum is not exactly like the Scottish independence referendum, there are certain parallels between the campaigns, how they have been run, and how the polls can spectacularly fail to predict the outcome of such a contest even a few days from the vote.

In his excellent book “A Comparative Study of Referendums: Government by the People, Second Edition", Jens Qvortrup describes the campaign leading up to the 2001 referendum and provides some insight into what caused the shock result.  Much of the book is available on the wonderful Google Books website.

All conventional wisdom pointed to a “Yes” vote- this was the position of the Irish Government of and the mainstream political parties, the mainstream media in Ireland and most “establishment” voices.  The “no” campaign comprised active “grassroot” campaigners and a band of organisations united around a simple message- to reject the Treaty of Nice.

My contention here is that the “Yes” in the Irish example provided by Qvortrup has strong parallels with the “No” in the Scottish referendum. In the discussion below, all that is required is to swap “Yes” for “No” and vice versa.

In the run up to the referendum the Irish Government was doing well in domestic opinion polls, with some 86% of the Irish population agreeing that being in Europe was good for Ireland, leading some to believe the referendum was a foregone conclusion- people would, conventional wisdom suggested, get behind the government, and vote “Yes” to ratify the treaty.

The main political parties supported the “Yes” side, bolstered by support from big business, most trades unions, farming bodies and importantly- the mainstream media. This seemed to suggest an easy victory, if only the voters could be trusted to follow the cues and signals given by the parties.

Except that’s not what happened...

The challenge to the orthodoxy came from a varied and determined set of “No” groups whose ground campaign simply outperformed the combined might of their opponents’ entire campaign. The “No” campaign comprised a variety of enthusiastic groups such as “No to Nice”, the Green Party, Sinn Fein, the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Justice and Anti-Poverty Body Action from Ireland, the Peace and Neutrality Alliance, the National Platform and the Christian Alliance. There are certainly obvious parallels between the Scottish Yes campaign here.

In addition the “Yes” parties proved unable to work together with a general election looming in 2002; it seems that their lack of co-operation was prompted by mutual mistrust and party political rivalries. The “No” side was, by contrast, unhampered by such rivalry.

The “Yes” parties simply fell victim to over confidence and an over reliance on their powerful friends and a powerful media. Opinion polls had predicted an easy win for them, though as Qvortrup suggests:

“…alarm bells should have begun to ring on Saturday 2 June (Scott’s note- the vote was on 7th June) when an Irish Times- MRBI poll revealed that 45 percent intended to vote “yes”, whereas the figure two weeks previously had been 52%; some 28% indicated they would be voting “no”, and increase of 7% on the earlier poll; while the number of those undecided remained the same at 27%. Somewhat surprisingly, the politicians took little notice of the poll.

The “yes” campaign was lackluster and ineffective: the political parties did not present a unified front, other than agreeing on the necessity for a “yes” result; indeed they seemed more concerned with party-political point scoring, than with securing a “yes” vote”.

The “No” campaign was mainly undertaken using good old fashioned door to door canvassing, something that had not been the norm in Ireland for many years. The reader can decide which campaign in the Scottish referendum most closely parallels this approach.

Qvortrup concludes:

“The polls indicated that the Government was within close range of victory. The outcome would- or at least could- have been very different had the “yes” parties been able (and willing) to co-operate, but that was not the case. The ”yes” side was split by internal rivalries between the parties, and the focus on the Tipperary by-election created tension in the camp. Consequently the parties of the “yes” side failed to co-operate. The “no” side by contrast succeeded in maintaining unity- ostensibly because the parties involved were too ideologically heterogeneous to pose an electoral threat to each other”.

So, in summary - the losing side was made up of political rivals who were suspicious of each other, given an election was looming. The losing side let this rivalry negatively affect their campaign and they failed to present a united front. The losing side relied too heavily on a compliant media, and lacked an effective and broad ground campaign. The losing side took solace in the polls, believing that they had the result sewn up long before the vote, “how can we lose?”. The losing side failed to recognise the ground shifting behind their feet only days before the vote, and when they did, they lacked the tools to counter the shift in opinion.

The losing side lost.

More excerpts of Dr Qvortrup’s book are available at Google Books. See page 72 and the available pages nearby for more.


  1. There is a completely parallel case in my home town Gothenburg this weekend where a grass root campaign overturned all established parties and people voted no to congestion tolls for an unpopular infrastructure project (57% majority). This was NOT AT ALL predicted by polls, but not surprising if you kept your ear to the ground. I think there is all to play for.

  2. The Irish referendum had a turnout of 35% whereas the indyref is predicted to have a turnout of 80%+. That alone makes them completely different because the impact of GOTV exercises is greatly amplified in low turnout elections.

  3. Caution with this comparison. Most votes on European issues are decided by differential turnout.

    The Irish EU referendum was lost by the mainstream side because only 34% of the people voted. No voters were more engaged. Had the average citizen turnef out to vote, the result would have been an easy win (as it was the following year). This will not happen today.

  4. -2 hours till the polls open

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  5. Someone posted earlier "gotv is greatly amplified in low turn out elections". Sorry that is only half the story. Gotv is also "greatly amplified in higher than the NORM electoral turnouts. So gotv is absolutely pivotal today - end of story.


  6. Might be getting my wires crossed (and it doesnt really matter in the grand scheme of things), but was there a poll published this morning in one of the English papers?

  7. If I was in Better Together I would be absolutely bricking it about the high number of undecided voters. If it is as high as 10% or more, and I think it probably is, well who knows what is going to happen today!!

    I don't believe the 'silent majority' exists. I can imagine quite a few YES voters in affluent areas, or where a lot of friends are voting NO, keeping quiet as well. There are shy YES people out there too.

    My polling station was buzzing, the comparison from the euro elections was incredible. Streams of people piling in.

    Hold on to your seats folks, it is going to be an emotional ride the next 24 hours!

    Nice post, but I think the comparison is not really that good. Scotland's referendum will be a modern benchmark, will be studied by political theorists, historians, lawyers etc. for years to come. Long after we are all gone people will look back to this time of creativity and hope, hopefully as the beginning of a new Scotland. If that happens Salmond will be regarded as a national hero, a thought which I know grates with those on the other side. The real heroes will be the ordinary people, the physical expression of re-awakened Scottish popular sovereignty.

    So proud to be Scottish today. So proud to have votes YES. Let's do this!!!!

  8. Thanks for the comments guys- yes I do acknowledge that the cases are different, of course they are. The point of the post was to show that the fluid nature of campaigns and shifts of opinion are sometimes tricky for pollsters (seeing as this site is mainly about polling, its a natural point to make).

    Also, the parallels with the campaigning strategies are very strong, we'll see tomorrow whether the parallels with the result are just as strong!

    The Irish example clearly shows a good grassroots campaign can defeat one supported by the mainstream narrative, if Yes wins in Scotland we will be looking at the same phenomena in action again I think.

    Anyway, off to vote- good luck today everyone!

  9. If it's naw,I'm praying for a YES over 48%

    even better as it's a huge turnout

  10. My polling station was completely quiet ,no queues at all ,no activists outside .I was the only one there !
    It is a rural affluent area so maybe the No's have not bothered as they think it is a foregone conclusion .....

  11. ylee coyote, Reasons? High postal voting, people at work.

    YES has to concentrate its resources on C2DE.

    The internals of the IPSO poll show that age groups 16-55, those in work or out of work and those with children support independence.

    We lose with retired over 55 homeowners with no children at home.

    The activists should be working at identifying C2DE voters who are sopportive of YES that would come up with excuses to get to the poll. They need to be physicaly taken to vote.

    Some rough math is that the activists (supposodly 35,000 today) need to increase C2DE turnout by 13%.

    Your commnet at this point of the day was encouraging not discouraging.

  12. @Anonymouse (10:18), years ago I stopped falling for "silent majority" as it is a crutch. It does not exist.

    I think you are on to something, IF shy no exists then equally shy yes also exists.

    NO has a large majority amongst ABC1 voters and the elderly.

    Is an elderly retired person going to admit to YES at her coffee morning with friends!! Of course not, admitting YES means you lose that vital group. the polling booth you vote for the children.

    If I am a banker at work, again outnumbered by NO, am I going to admit to YES? Of course not, it could hurt my career.

    I am a Scot without a vote living in England, I am in effect a shy yes. I will not talk about the referendum here because I am afraid to talk about it!! Saying I support an independent Scotland means I could lose many friendships and my ability to work.

  13. I'm hearing of a number of solid No voters having switched and actually voted Yes. Anecdotal I know but very encouraging early signs.

  14. Same here George, Irish working in banking in London. Wouldnt dream of saying I was pro Yes as they are very unionist around me. I bet there is a lot of silent yes in Scotland too. Silent No is just propaganda in my opinion.

  15. Shy Yes definitely exists. I spoke to my sister last night. She's a doctor, lives in an affluent suburb, never been one for political chat. My Mum (septuagenarian Brit and committed No) mentioned at the weekend she wasn't saying. I assumed she'd be No but you never know. Turns out she's Yes and also had been called by MORI a couple of nights ago and told them to mind their own business.

  16. Oh and while we're on meaningless anecdotes. ;-) My aforementioned septuagenarian Brit Mum went on and on (unprompted) about how patriotic a Scot she is. I asked her why she was so forceful when I'd never said she wasn't and after a while she confessed it was because she felt a bit of guilt casting her no (by post, so too late, damn). If the slightly less committed feel like that, we could get a few late swingers. Here's hoping ...

  17. Same here my office is quite intimidating. A lot of badly informed no people behind me. However I have let them know I am yes from start to finish. I guess I just dont care. I figure if a fellow Scot doesnt like me because I am rocking the establishment.They are not worth knowing!

  18. I queued up this morning for the polling station to open in Aberdeen. I was the 4rth in the queue. By the time I left the polling station about 7:05 there were 20+ people queuing.
    It was all very civilised.
    Felt good putting the x in the box!

  19. Even here in my leafy, middle-class Glasgow suburb, I got a knock on the door from a Yes activist checking we had all voted. GOTV machine seems fired up.

  20. How does everyone sense our GOTV efforts are comparing to no campaigns?

  21. My wife is out with Salmondo just now, she says people are crying and flower of scotland was being sung in the cafe by a random woman as they arrived.

    Just saw Jamie Murrays comments on Scotland as well, well timed.

    I am not just saying this, but undecideds leaning to no, will not vote.


  22. Scotland's leading sportsman Andy Murray today served a major last-minute boost for the independence campaign by declaring for Yes.

    The tennis superstar took to Facebook and Twitter to tell his followers: "Huge day for Scotland today! No campaign negativity last few days totally swayed my view on it. Excited to see the outcome. Let's do this!"

    The Wimbledon, Olympic and US Open champion had, until now, kept everybody guessing about where he stood on independence.

    His declaration in the early hours of this morning sent social media networks ablaze. By 9 am his Twitter message had been re-tweeted (reposted) more than 10,000 times.

    Murray, 27, who hails from Dunblane, Perthshire, joined his brother Jamie who also declared his support for a Yes vote.

    Jamie, 28, a former Wimbledon mix doubles champion, said: "Love UK. Love the Royals. But it's time for Scotland to stand on its own two feet and control their own destiny.

    "Scotland is full of smart, talented, hard-working, humble people. Have faith in them to run our country successfully."

  23. @chalk, @all, I regret that I did not come up to Scotland yesterday or today to work.

    Reading your comments, those of others and YES Scotland (twitter), has brought tears to my eyes.

    In the privacy of the voting cubicle, how, how do you say NO to Scotland?

    There are going to be a lot of Scots that can not bear to strike the No box.