Attitudes and Behaviour in the Irish referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon

A major study into the factors behind why the Irish electorate voted NO to the Lisbon treaty has just been completed by political scientists at UCD. The overall aspect to be taken from the study is that the ‘defeat was the product of a complex combination of factors’.

The main reason people voted no was  a  low level of knowledge by the electorate on what they were actually voting for (combined with misinformation about the content of the treaty). This raises some interesting questions for those of us interested in democratic theory, and democratic will formation (i.e. how are political preferences formed).

Firstly, if it is the case that people voted NO because they did not know what they were voting for then arguably this is a positive reflection on democracy. The fact that the electorate would not vote for something they did not understand is a good thing. The opposite is an electorate obediently voting YES to what their leaders recommend.  Surely the opposite of this is a good thing, and reflects a mature, democratically motivated electorate? In response to this many would argue that the government should not put complex issues to a referendum in the first place. This is perfectly rational (and a strong argument against referenda) but does not deal with the democratic hypothesis I am putting forward, i.e. it is a positive reflection on democracy and the electorate that they would not endorse an extremely important treaty without sufficient knowledge about the treaty.

Secondly, if knowledge was a crucial variable in determining voting behaviour (and preference formation) then how should democracies handle the question of political will formation, i.e. who’s responsibility is it to inform the electorate about complex issues such as EU Treaties? The argument against running referendum is stronger on this point. Political will formation is just as important in democracies as voting itself. An uniformed and ill informed vote (collectivised across the electorate) would surely lead to unsavory outcomes. Thus, if it is the case that the majority of people voted NO because they thought they were voting in favour of a treaty that ratified abortion then it would be a disastrous reflection on our democracy. However, from reading this report I sense that this is not the case in the Irish referendum. It was the case for a minority?

Therefore the central question of how opinion-will formation is constructed is crucial. Obviously truth, validity and factual accuracy are central to the dissemination of democratic information in the public sphere. Taking this for granted raises interesting questions about how the institutions of the Irish state and the EU produce sufficient knowledge for the electorate to make an informed choice. The eurobarometer poll illustrates that Irish people tend to view the EU in favorable terms. Thus, I think it is short sighted to conclude that the vote against the Lisbon treaty was a vote against Europe. It was a vote against insufficent knowledge and the logical conclusion to this line of reasoning is that it was a vote for democracy. The question therefore is a) whether the legislature should put complex issues to referendum or b) if they do put complex issues to the electorate via a referndum, how should the dissemination of complex information be handled? Habermas may have some pratical advise on how to handle the latter.

Full Report:

One response to “Attitudes and Behaviour in the Irish referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon

  1. Stephen Quinlan

    I think you have touched on two important issues in your editorial: firstly, the vote against Lisbon was not one against Europe. The fact remains that even among No voters, a majority are in favour of Ireland’s membership of the EU and even more acknowledge the benefits that accrue from such membership. The second point which I wish to take up is more complex but is certainly worthy of further debate. That is the use of referendums in dealing with European treaties. At the end of an article I recently wrote, I posed that very question, given the fact that while you put a question to the electorate, it is not necessarily clear that you are getting the answer to that particular question that was asked. It is certainly worthy of further debate, both from the narrow perspective of how Ireland deals with the fallout from the Lisbon Treaty and the broader implications for democratic theory and is a discussion that people need to have sooner rather than later…

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