Northern Ireland news

PLATFORM: Leo Varadkar's Eight Amendment decision could backfire

Quintin Oliver and Matt Qvortrup
Matt Qvortrup and Quintin Oliver

"C’mon get off it!” and “what do you know about southern politics anyway?” It was almost two decades ago when we were met with these derisory comments, after we had the audacity to suggest that the referendum on the Nice Treaty No 1 would be lost. The same with Lisbon 1.

Our boldness was to come up with a single prediction that (broadly) holds true for all referendums across western democracies. It is this: two-thirds of the ‘don’t knows’ tend to vote ‘No’.

Back then the polls suggested a slender but still significant lead for the proponents of the aforementioned treaties but a large number of ‘don’t knows’ were still reported. The lead was almost ten percent. But this lead was not translated into victory on polling day. In the end – as we predicted – the ‘nays’ had it.

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Late last week, an Irish Times IPSOS Poll found that 58 per cent would vote for the repeal of the eighth amendment, but that seventeen percent were undecided:

Based on our rule of thumb, that would give the nay-sayers a slender majority of 52 per cent on polling day.

Of course, politics is not an exact science like physics, but predicting the outcome of referendums is a good deal closer to the scientific ideal than many people acknowledge. Indeed, one of the authors predicted the correct outcome of the Brexit referendum four months before the vote in 2016

So why is there an overwhelming risk – or chance – that the opponents of abortion will win the referendum?

The reasons are complex but predictable. As an overall tendency, voters tend to follow the adage, ‘if in doubt, vote no’. We know what we got but not what we get. Change is always a cause for anxiety and in a climate of claim and counter-claim, it is easy to sow doubt, as the opponents will demonstrate with vigour in the final week.

The risk (or chance) of this happening is stronger if the government has been in office for a long time. If a government has been recently elected, it is likely to get the benefit of the doubt. Remember Harold Wilson’s successful campaign to remain in the then EEC in 1975, shortly after his narrow October 1974 election success? Tony Blair in Scotland and Wales over the first phase of devolution in 1997, after his triumph of May?

But to govern is to antagonise. Many – indeed most – referendums are lost if the government has been in office for a long time. This is what happened for David Cameron in the United Kingdom. Having been in office for six years, the Conservative Prime Minister’s trustworthiness was eroded by broken promises.

In such an environment, it is hard to counter the more or less fanciful claims that characterise referendum campaigns.

Having been in office since 2011, Fine Gael is in many ways in the same position as the Conservatives were in Britain in 2016. Whatever they say can be countered by the response, ‘there they go again” or ‘why should we trust them now?’

So the risk – or chance – that they and the ‘yes-side’ may lose the referendum is less about abortion than it is about the government.

That is one of the problems with referendums; they are not just about the issue at hand; voters often base their decision on their trust or distrust in the government. The decision to call a referendum can backfire spectacularly. Maybe Dr Leo Varadkar will soon regret he reopened the abortion issue, just like David Cameron regretted the Brexit referendum.

:: Matt Qvortrup is author of Government by Referendum, professor of political science at Coventry University and a ‘world’s leading expert on referendums’ (BBC); Quintin Oliver is director of Stratagem International. He ran the 1998 YES Campaign on the Good Friday Agreement and has advised on many referenda across the world.

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