Referendum pro: There is collective remorse in Ireland

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The Irish feel a sense of guilt in the aftermath of the Lisbon Treaty referendum, Quintin Oliver, a specialist in referenda who led the successful ‘yes’ campaign in the referendum on the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Quintin Oliver is also the director of the public affairs and government relations firm Strategem in Northern Ireland.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

You have a rare speciality – referenda. Can you explain where it came from? 

I live and work in Belfast in Northern Ireland and I first associated with referenda in 1979, when I was living and working in Scotland. At that time I was chair of the Scottish wing of the British Youth Council. We helped campaign for a ‘yes’ vote in the failed Scottish referendum at that time, which pre-figured the successful 1997 process of devolution within the UK 20 years later. One thing I remember from 1979 is that there were eight different ‘yes’ campaigns. Looking back, it was madness to conduct the campaign in such a way. The voters were confused and it allowed the ‘no’ campaign to poke holes in any of the ‘yes’ camp’s arguments. 

My second most serious engagement was with the 1998 Good Friday agreement referendum in Northern Ireland, where I organised and directed the cross-party and non-party ‘yes’ campaign. Cross-party, because there were 11 political parties in favour of the Good Friday agreement, so we had to find a way to ensure that they would not spin the message in 11 different ways, and non-party, because that’s the thing politicians often don’t realise with referenda – they are not like elections. Politicians do elections, and they push candidates for positions. Referenda are very different and you have to be much cleverer with your messaging, much more simplistic, although it’s the wrong word. Simplistic should not mean banal, you need to have a simple, focused, coherent message. 

Was this the case in the Irish referendum? 

That’s where the ‘yes’ campaign failed. They didn’t sell the future under the Treaty in a positive, simple, coherent, lucid way. They confused it and they looked backwards. They suggested that gratitude to Europe would be enough to secure a ‘yes’ vote, and that was not the right way. 

How important is the way the political class behaved during the campaign? 

Lessons were not learned from the failed Nice referendum. They seem to have sleepwalked into it. They knew they were going to be the only country in Europe to hold a referendum, that it was going to be politically difficult because of the Treaty of Nice negative experience, they knew there was going to be a strong ‘no’ campaign, and yet they did not plan ahead. 

They did not start six months out laying the ground, checking the messages with focus groups, preparing the cross-party platform, what would be the common ground of the coalition parties. The Greens, the Progressive Democrats, Fianna Fáil and the opposition parties in favour of it, the Labour Party and Fine Gael might be, and then they might disagree on nuances or particular aspects. None of that was done. 

And the only excuse for that is they had these political problem with the then Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. In the months in the run-up of the referendum he was under pressure, because of questions asked by the tribunals. Then Ahern resigned and was replaced, which didn’t leave his successor Brian Cowen time to create that consensus and that coalition. And in a sense the referendum was doomed by that moment. 

So you say that without this internal scandal the referendum might have gone through? 

It was possible, had that planning and that thinking been done at that time. But there is little evidence that this was the case. In most referenda that are not of national significance, when people are likely to be interested and are likely to have a view on it, it is important to do this advance work. And in most cases the voters make up their mind by absorbing the wallpaper publicity a long time before. Therefore you might say the referendum was lost by the fall of last year, by the lack of that work. 

Looking back at the period between Nice I and Nice II in Ireland, one of the significant successes then was the setting up of the National Forum for Europe in Ireland, which was a way of explaining and popularising the issues. And that was a roadshow and a national forum that achieved national publicity and had a budget to promote information about Europe and about the benefits for Ireland from its EU membership. And that forum still existed, it was not disbanded after Nice II, perhaps because they did not want to admit it had been set up primarily to help persuade voters to change their minds. 

But they didn’t use it, they didn’t use the mechanism that was already there, the staff that were already there, the branding that was there. That was a sign of utmost complacency. 

Didn’t the political class underestimate Declan Ganley and his financial resource? 

They did, and again, that’s one of the weaknesses of politicians. Those politicians think about elections as posts, to put their candidate on posts. In referenda it’s entirely different, the mind of the voters in a different state, and the ideas of the ‘no’ campaigners have much more salience, because they are not pushing a person whom you can examine. It’s much easier to jettison ideas into the bloodstream of the political discourse, when the backers remain in the shadows. It was only in the last few days that some people started to ask who this Ganley is and where he comes from, where the money is coming from. That should have been done much earlier. 

You were there. Did you feel remorse the next day? 

Often there is this feeling of voter’s remorse, when they see that their single vote has had an impact over a collective decision, and that is true for elections as well, when maverick candidates are elected. Take Boris Johnson. When he was elected Mayor of London, there was a collective gasp, when the individuals see that they have been part of a collective that has bucked the system. Often there is a collective remorse and I think that’s palpable in Ireland. 

People are wondering what have they done, problems have been caused, and have they been right to follow a populist, singular instinct, having plugged one of the ‘no’ arguments, while the ‘no’ arguments are demolished after the vote, when they should have been demolished before the vote. 

How important was the impact of the famous mistakes by leaders who said they had not read the Treaty? 

In referenda those symbolic moments have more significance than in elections. In a referendum the voters are less bound by their party allegiance. They look at their political leaders, but they feel liberated by their party loyalty. Therefore these mistakes were elevated. 

What about the lies by the ‘no’ camp? 

In any referendum the ‘no’ campaigners have always got an easier job. They may use a scattered gun approach, they may throw hand grenades in lots of different directions, and some will find a ready audience. There were miss-truths and un-truths spoken during the ‘no’ campaign, and there was not enough time for the ‘yes’ campaigners to rebut those arguments. The arguments about abortion, about militarisation, about conscription, about the Irish neutrality were not entirely accurate, but they stuck with some voters, who stayed home or said “I’ll vote ‘no’ because I don’t want these bad things to happen”. 

But it was the same for the failed referenda on the EU Constitution in France and the Netherlands – the ‘no’ camp focused on the Bolkestein directive on services and Turkey’s EU membership, which had nothing to do with the Treaty. But politicians should be prepared in advance against such arguments, shouldn’t we expect this?

Indeed, and that’s where the concept of pre-battle, when you predict the attacks that are going to happen, and to advance your arguments, in order to create the weather, rather than pull an umbrella after the rain has started. 

Any businessman who is planning a significant move predicts what his competitor would do in reply. Why don’t politicians? 

Because politicians live for the moment. Like children, they cannot defer gratification. 

In your articles you advocate simple questions for referenda. If there is a re-run of the Lisbon Treaty referendum, the question asked will in fact be very simple: does Ireland want to remain part of the EU? 

That is easier for the campaigners, because it really simplifies the question. It’s a legitimate simplification, without banalisation. There is a line below which you should not cross, because this is populism. And the electorate is more sophisticated than that. In political science there is a duty to present things in a way that can command understanding and respect, and not be over-complex. When voters get confused, they retreat into apprehension about change or positive hostility toward change. Then they either do not vote, or vote ‘no’, because change is too dangerous. That’s why in history, more referenda have been lost than won. 

When should the re-run of the failed referendum take place? 

If they want to have a second referendum, and that’s an important question for the Irish government, for the Irish people, and for the EU, they need to find a strategic message that is simple without being simplistic, that is understandable, that is coherent and then has a number of subsidiary powerful points that have salience for the voter. 

They must not fall into the trap of arrogance, having been guilty of complacency. Like telling the Irish people: “You made a mistake and now you should correct it.” That would be fatal and that would galvanise both the ‘no’ campaigners and the voter, who would feel abused and exploited. And that process may take longer than they think. 

But Brussels may be tempted to press on Ireland, there is a cliché about the need the Lisbon Treaty to be enforced before the European elections. 

Absolutely, that’s the mess we are in. But from referendum specialism, which is my contribution in this discussion, the way to win a referendum is to cast it in a way that has salience, purpose and reason for a voter to feel that this is important, and not to feel been patroni’ed, bullied or manipulated in any way. 

In other terms you would not advise adjusting the timing according to the Brussels calendar? 

Indeed, because people would feel again, it’s someone else’s calendar, someone else’s pressure, someone else’s failures which are being visited upon them. 

You have just returned from Baghdad where you accompanied Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, in an effort of parallel diplomacy – trying to sell the experience of South Africa and Northern Ireland in solving conflicts between communities – I must add in a very different context. Do you believe in political genetics? 

Those of us who live in conflict areas understand conflicts in a different way from those who don’t. And therefore when we meet people from another conflict area, of course, there are many differences, and of course your hosts will say “You will not understand our conflict. We hate our enemy much more than you hated your enemy”. 

But then, on day two, they ask you: “Did you have to deal with decommissioning of weapons, with demilitarisation, armed groups, militias in the government, fair and impartial policing, international interference, regional imbalances, finding an international chair?” “Which international organisation do you trust?” 

And then there is a coming together, because those processes of getting out of a conflict are universal. And challenging to those involved. We are not ‘selling’ Northern Ireland or South Africa, or Sri Lanka, or Singapore. We are saying: “We have some experience, if you want to learn, please ask us lots of questions and draw your own conclusions. And they notice we understand the dynamics of conflicts, and that’s where the synergy comes. 

On this mission, you represent yourself and the Northern Ireland First Minister represents his country. Where is Europe? 

Europe is very important, because there are a number of continuing conflicts in Europe, there are issues of language, of identity, of borders, and we are trying to deal with those. 

In Northern Ireland we have reached a form of a political accommodation. It is not perfect, but it’s progress. And the experiences are still fresh in people’s minds. And that’s where we believe Europe has a role and a duty indeed, to turn those lessons into knowledge. To apply them elsewhere in the EU, but also outside. And that’s why we have an obligation, when we are asked to take part in discussions in Macedonia, in Serbia, or in Bosnia, or Iraq, or East Timor, we have a duty, and the European Union is considering at the moment the establishment of a conflict transformation centre, and that might be indeed be located in Northern Ireland. 

Internationally Europe has a leadership role to play in this field. 

I wonder if you would be also prepared to mediate on the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece? 

That would be a wonderful one! As a student of ancient Greek, I would be more than happy to accept an invitation to undertake a joint study visit. 

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