Research on Reasons Behind Voter Behaviour in the Oireachtas Inquiry Referendum 2011

From Jane Suiter

A group of us including Professor Michael Marsh, Dr Theresa Reidy and I along with Red C were commissioned to undertake research following the referendums in November with a view to learning lessons for future referendum campaigns. The report is here and the presentation given to the Oireachtas Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions yesterday. here. The Programme for Government as we know contains a number of commitments which are likely to require constitutional referendums to take place over the lifetime of the current Government including those that may arise under the aegis of the proposed constitutional convention. The purpose of the research was to obtain both quantitative and qualitative information to cast light on the determinants of voter behaviour in the Referendum on Oireachtas inquiries with a view to learning lessons for future referendum campaigns to ensure that voters are appropriately informed and aware of the relevant issues.
We thus looked at
 the underlying factors which influenced the attitudes of the electorate to the proposal
 the specific issues and concerns raised in the course of public debate on the impact of the proposal which underpinned the loss in support evidenced for it
 the public’s perception and assessment of the quality and utility of the information available on the Referendum and views on how this might be enhanced in the future

What we found accords with referendum research here and elsewhere previously. Overall voters supported Oireachtas inquiries in principle (75%) yet many voted no. For some it was too big a change but for many it was too much uncertainty (if you don’t know vote no) while others appeared to vote for reasons outside of the issue itself (punishing the government). One reason for the very high levels of uncertainty was that there was a very low level of awareness of the debate with a plurality of both yes and no voters unable to recall a reason for their vote. This points to problems with the campaign and with the role of the Referendum Commission, There is a clear association between trust in legal experts and some former Attorneys General and voting ‘no’, as there was between knowing these made a case for a ‘no’ vote and voting ‘no’. Evidence suggests that the ‘yes’ side was unable to mobilise those who should have been in favour. But there is also support for the suggestion that for some voters this was a bigger change than they could accept.
In terms of views on future reform there is little sign of a pro reform group with views on various reforms differing widely. For example, 87% agree the number of TDs should be reduced, and 73% that same sex marriage should be allowed, but only 59% to abolish the Seanad, 53% that blasphemy should be removed from the constitution and 34% to change the electoral system. Although there is a slight tendency for those who favour of the abolition of Seanad to favour the reduction of TDs, and also for those who favour same sex marriage to be keen to remove offence of blasphemy from constitution and place of women in constitution but tendency is slight. There is no generally strong tendency of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ voters to support reforms but ‘no’ voters slightly less likely to favour abolishing the Seanad or increasing power of LG but more likely to favour removal of offence of blasphemy. In terms of the Constitutional Convention there was a tendency to favour the involvement of citizens a finding that was underlined in the qualitative focus groups.

17 thoughts on “Research on Reasons Behind Voter Behaviour in the Oireachtas Inquiry Referendum 2011

  1. This is a bit like the exercise that was conducted by the last government following the first Lisbon referendum debacle. In typical academic fashion it dances around a couple of key issues. For example, while officially, at the top level, FF positioned itself as being in favour, in principle, you can be pretty sure that they knew the first inquiry would be in to the bank fiasco and there would be naming and shaming FF people and their asscociates, so the word went out, quietly but effectively, to mobilise a ‘no’ vote. And, in addition to those voters who have an instinctive distaste for giving more power to politicians or who were genuinely uncertain and voted no, there were quite a few, I suspect, who knew that governments exercised so much power over the Oireachtas that any inquiry powers would be abused.

    Another example is the possibility that, while most voters were happy to give the judges a well-deserved kicking, many wanted to give the Government some sense of their discontent with the programme of austerity so they were not going to give it the inquiry powers and the Presidency. It looked for a while that the mix of Gallagher in the Park and a yes to the inquiry power would fit the bill. The extent to which the mix switched when the Gallagher campaign nose-dived is interesting.

    I suppose it should not be surprising that the relevant questions are never posed directly – nor an attempt made to answer them. No wonder we keep fumbling around in the dark. The irony is that most voters know the score, but the pols and all their camp-followers find it more comforting and rewarding to continue to suspend disbelief and to project and sustain these wonderful optical illusions.

    • I realise this answer is probably futile and will no doubt attract another barrage but Im wondering did you read the report Paul? we did find that FF voters were likely to have voted no, how would you propose we disengage the exact motivation or if there were “quiet words” in a reliable fashion?
      We also found that there were voters who felt that the change would give politicians too much power and we said as much, Getting into the nuances of executive legislative relations is tricky with a a small question budget and unlikely to be rewarding given the levels of political knowledge. Remember a plurality did not know why they voted either ‘yes’ or ‘no.

      • It’s remarkable logic. Fianna Fáil, currently on 17%, managed to convince 53% of the electorate, secretly, to vote against a proposition they were publicly supporting. I’d love to hear Paul go into more detail on that one!

        On a serious note Jane et al., is there any reason why voter behaviour in the other referendum was not examined? was this simply what the brief stipulated – or were there any other considerations?

  2. Jane,

    Congratulations to you and your colleagues on this initiative and thanks for posting the report on this site. The report is excellent, in my view, and provides much valuable information not just on how or why voters acted as they did on this particular referendum, but on electoral behaviour in referendums in general. The report is particularly important in the context of a possible referendum on the Compact Treaty as it’s called before the end of this year or early next year since it provides useful insights to voters’ responses to political interventions, and those of expert opinion, on issues that may arise in the course of any campaign.

    A couple of things were surprising. For example, voters’ reliance and trust in the media as an information source since one of the characteristics of this particular referendum was that the traditional mainstream media was a Johnny-come-lately to the public debate. As I recall, it was civil liberties groups who first raised the flag of doubt on the internet. The contributions of Finbar Lehane to the debate on this site stimulated me, for one, to start looking further into what was being proposed by the Government and to which I had hitherto been in favour on the same grounds of principle as the rest of the 74%, but then latterly became opposed to what was being put forward by the Government.

    The manner in which the referendum proposal was being rushed through the Oireacthas also raised doubts, both in the sense that the electorate’s approval was being taken for granted by the Government and as such, we the citizens were being patronised (again!) by our representative betters. Perhaps the complacency of the government and the mainstream media as regards the proposal arose from the fact that all parties in the Dail favoured this extension of powers and appeared not too disposed to examine the measure in any great detail? The Dail reports on the Bill would tend to support this. Apart from Mary Lou Mc Donald’s initial questioning of the wording, the rest of it was pretty bland stuff. I think a separate study of Oireacthas members’ views on how the referendum was cast and the campaigning strategy of members of the government and thier respective parties as well as the views of the political media would provide a useful complement to your report.

    It’s not surprising to find that when parties do not actively campaign either for or against a referendum, this appears to increase the likelihood of a proposal being rejected. Certainly, there’s a precedent in regard to the Nice and Lisbon Treaty various campaigns. For Nice 1 and Lisbon 1, on the ground party campaigns were minimal whereas much more intensive efforts were mounted second time round which succeeded in reversing the previous votes. This raises a further question for the mainstream political parties in that it appears visible party-political activity is apparently essential to securing public engagement on referendum issues. Any illusions they may currently entertain that results can be achieved just by relying on the media or the internet and abandoning ‘old-fashioned’ doorknocking campaigning is at their own peril. Delay in mobilising party activity arguably also puts party spokespersons on the back foot, forced into reacting defensively to challenges from external sources or within the media when these inevitably arise. In this latest referendum, it proved disastrous for the government side.

    Finally, I think the Irish electorate have shown themselves to be quite adept in discriminating between what they will accept or reject. In the three-pronged referendum proposal on abortion in 1992, voters selected between the options within one proposal. So its hardly a surprise that the judges pay proposal was passed, whilst the Oireachtas powers proposal was rejected by the same voters. Interestingly, the Attorneys General called for rejection of both proposals, as I recall, but their argument against the judges pay referendum was discarded by voters whereas their critique of the Oireachtas powers’ measure appears to have been influential on voting intentions. Perhaps the trenchant criticism subsequently directed against the AGs by certain members of the government became a factor in this?

    I don’t think there is any evidence to support Paul’s contention of any tacit whispering campaign by Fianna Fail. Like the rest of the mainstream parties, FF were practically invisible on the ground throughout the campaign anyway.

    Sorry for the length of this comment, but it’s stimulated by the results of your fascinating poll and the many questions which it raises for discussion.

    • @Veronica
      Glad you liked some of my witterings here on that topic 🙂 While I do agree with most of the conclusions in the report such as the need for a longer more informative debate for referendums, I’m not sure they would have helped this amendment. If the proposal is well constructed and properly thought out to begin with then a long campaign will only help to reassure voters. The infamous subsection 4 was the Achilles heel of this proposal. The uncertainty surrounding that would never have gone away. There was certainly a strand of legal opinion (represented by David Gwynn Morgan and presumably the Attorney General herself) who went for a “harmonious interpretation” of subsection 4 in relation to the rest of the constitution. But seemingly that wasn’t even the majority legal opinion. Any lengthy debate would not, could not, have put to bed the uncertainly over the subsection. Minister Howlin opted for a maximalist inquiries amendment (perhaps not surprising given his previous involvement in Abbeylara). An amendment without subsection 4 would have overturned Abbeylara. A subsection 4 modelled after the original wording recommended by the Oireachtas committee would have been a strong overturning of Abbeylara (would have given wide but not absolute discretion to politicians).

      Private rights can and are curtailed in the course of a criminal investigation. Property can be seized, private residences can be searched, phones can be tapped, there may be surveillance of suspects. Judges can even compel journalists to give up sources in a criminal trial, or lock them up for contempt if they refuse (though presumably they’d be very reluctant to do this). We allow this in the greater public interest. And we allow those who we hope are impartial and have no particular axe to grind, i.e. judges, to balance up these rights.

      A “non-harmonious” interpretation of subsection 4 hands the striking of this balance potentially almost wholly to politicians. We’d be handing them a significant subset of the usual powers of criminal investigation. The proposed legislation involved judges signing warrants. There’s the danger that might have been dispensed with at some future date. In contrast, the German equivalent (article 44 of their basic law ) rules out surveillance and interception of private communications. It requires that the same criminal standards of investigation apply to the gathering of evidence (whether in private residences or elsewhere). Plus German inquiries by default have to be held in public (unless 2/3 of their members say otherwise). The Oireachtas has to sit in public (unless 2/3 of TDs agree to a private emergency sitting). Same with our courts (unless there’s a very good reason otherwise, e.g. family courts). There was no such requirement built into the Oireachtas amendment. Private sittings may sometimes be a good thing. But if we were to give our TDs such extraordinary powers (unsupervised by the judiciary) then the least one could expect would be public hearings (unless perhaps a 2/3 majority said otherwise). German committees of inquiry also have to have a makeup representative of the party groupings in the Bundestag. Would there even have been even such an obligation under the failed amendment? Sure, there are standing orders to this effect. But could a far future government simply have changed these and created a committee of inquiry composed purely of government TDs, meeting in secret, with wide-ranging powers of search and surveillance? Seems hysterical. But constitutions are to guard against worst cases. And the boundaries to the potential inquiry powers in the recent referendum were too worryingly ill-defined for my taste. Any length of debate wouldn’t have removed doubt and uncertainty over this.

      Plus wasn’t previously aware (and I’m sure lots of other people weren’t also) of the intriguing German approach of giving a qualified minority (1/4 in their case) of MPs positive rights and protections in the conducting of investigations. Hopefully this type of idea will also feature prominently in any possible rerun once they’ve straightened out the rights issues.

  3. @Jane Suitor,

    Barrage? Academia must now be overwhelmed by political correctness and the requirement to be ‘ever so polite’, non-adversarial and non-confrontational since I endured my indentured labour in the hallowed groves where Finbarr taught. Still I expect the vitriolic and visceral feuds go on behind the scenes since the prizes remain as small as they always were.

    And yes. I did read the report. I’m just not sure what it adds to the sum total of human knowledge. The recommendations strike me as just another helping of good old ‘motherhood and apple pie’. And what is worse is that the research is conducted as if Ireland has a fully functioning parliamentary democracy and, by failing to frame the research in the context of significant dysfunction, it simply sustains the optical illusion.

    Governments in all developed economies are assailed on all sides by various narrow sectional economic interests and try to hold the ring – but, inevitably, are forced to give in and to cobble together deals behind closed doors that, almost by definition, are not in the general public interest. But in many other countries, parliaments are a bit more powerful and are able to exercise some restraint, the major competing political blocs are defined by their views on the role of the state and this confict is in the public interest, individual members of parliament (or groups of members) are often quite ‘bolshie’ in the general public interest, consumer interests are often represented and advocated more effectively and, even if ‘deals’ are done behind closed doors, there tends to be much more transparency about the nature of these deals.

    In Ireland every interest group grabs what it can without effective scrutiny or restraint – leaving everyone worse off. And the academics are as adept at this game as any others. Ireland simply can’t afford to allow this game to continue – particularly while continued fiscal adjustment is squeezing the domestic economy.

    You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.


    Just a factor, and ulikely to be a deciding factor, but I didn’t think it was fully explored.

    • Paul,

      Of course it’s not adding hugely to the’sum total of human knowledge’ but I’m sure you would agree that the report is a useful addition to an analysis of the reasons why this particular referendum failed. The parliamentary failure respect of the referendum process itself was quite shocking – a referendum Bill provides opportunities for deputies, whatever their party colour, to speak their minds. They didn’t. That’s why I’d like to see a follow up study involving politicians and the media, as suggested above, because I think putting the two studies together may provide some further insight as to how media neglect of an issue that was worthy of forensic scrutiny and the negligence of parliamentarians may influence voters’ response to a referendum proposal.

      As to vested interests, I would have thought that the problem with vested interest groups in Ireland is, as Peter Mair once put it, that they’ve been left with the stage to themselves because the broader mass of citizens prefer to hold individual politicians – usually their own TDs – to account rather than governments as a whole. Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum….

      • Veronica,

        I know I’m probably coming across as an anti-academic Luddite, but I stuggle to see the point and I worry about the unintended consequences. I’ve pointed out some, but, in addition and for example, it makes a lot of people look a bit gormless and stupid which, most certainly, they are not. As Jane pointed out ” a plurality did not know why they voted either ‘yes’ or ‘no'”.

        I do however recognise the rationale for your desire to see a follow-up study involving politicians and the media because it might help to explain why this study has left so many people looking gormless and stupid.

        However, rather than studying politicians and the media in their habitats and seeing how they operate when issues like this crop up (shades of David Attenborough or Eamon de Buitlear in ‘Amuigh faoin speir’), it’s probably far better to seek to engage them. The very act of studying their behaviour in this instance could get the hackles up and provoke a defensive response – mainly because they all know darn well they didn’t cover themselves in glory.

        And then we’re back to the incentives they have and the constraints under which they operate. And the galling thing is that it is only they who can change the incentives and remove the constraints. And that’s where I’m left scratching my head…

  4. This study continues to bother me. I’ve made the link previously, but didn’t pursue it. I know it clearly isn’t the intent, but it is very similar to the research the then government did after Lisbon I. “Ye fools. Why did ye vote that down? What’ll have to be done to persuade ye to get it right the next time?”

    There is a huge gulf between government and ordinary voters that a properly functioning parliament should fill. There are numerous examples of how this makes both governance and the securing of democratic consent extremely difficult – so difficult in fact that in many cases when government does what it can to give the impression that it has been secured the result is far from being in the public interest.

    The Government’s proposed programme of state asset privatisation is a topical and relevant example. This is an issue that has provoked – and continues to provoke – considerable popular unease and opposition. The government has been disingenuous and misleading in the extreme in the way it appears to have secured some sullen and resigned popular consent. And it has done so by ‘squaring’ all the narrow sectional interests that might be affected – anyone one of which could scupper the entire exercise. But, to conceal this behind the scenes deal-cutting, it has focused on its success in persuading the Troika to allow one-third of the proceeds to be used for this ‘airy fairy’ Strategic Investment Fund – that will be used to reward its clientelist networks – with the remainder paying down some national debt – to put a smile on the faces of the bond vigilantes.

    I am absolutely and totally opposed to this programme, but not because I’m opposed to privatisation in principle. Any programme of privatisation that doesn’t have economic efficiency as its primary objective is almost certain to end up creating a costly mess. This programme is almost guaranteed to achieve this outcome. It will preserve, and is intended to preserve, the gloriously inefficient and consumer and economy damaging status quo.

    Yet the entire ‘establishment’ appears to have bought in to it. There isn’t a peep from the hordes of academic and non-academic professional economists. I probably don’t need to remind you, but these are the people whose primary focus is supposed to be on economic efficiency. When, down the road, the underlying inefficiencies and self-serving nonsense will be revealed, as they inevitably will, people will be asking: Why did no one speak out?

    Does this sound familiar?

    • Paul it is simply not the case that we were trying to find out what needs to be done to persuade people to vote in any one direction. The purpose was to discover why people voted as they did. We found that many people did not know why they voted as they did, which is not as you have previously suggested a reflection that they are in any way ignorant but rather that the campaign failed to catch them.
      In low salience elections where people do not have strong, long held views most people have better things to be doing with their lives than engaging with what many would regard as minutia. Thus if we are to have referendums and they are to be democratically enhancing there is a responsibility to ensure that teh electorate are as knowledgeable and as engaged as possible so that they can vote in whatever direction they choose in accordance with their views. That makes for a healthier democracy.
      As Michael Marsh pointed out at the Oireachtas committee in some ways our current set up with the Referendum Commission is something akin to the jury system. There we expect people to listen to both sides of the argument and perhaps aided by an educated intervention from the judge come to their decision. Even if we believed that this worked in some ideal way it simply cannot be transferred to a referendum where people have ample opportunity to switch channels and simply not engage with the arguments on either side. Thus there is a need to rethink the way we run referendums in order that the people’s wish can be more democratically expressed.

      • I thought I made it clear that I recognised your intent was not the same as that of the then government post Lisbon I. And I also thought I made it clear that because many voters did not know why they had voted the way they did it did not mean they were gormless, stupid or ignorant. It doesn’t really matter. I’m used to having views and positions attibuted to me that i neither hold nor express. It’s one of the perils of trying to engage in any part of the public domain. It appears that those who are more accustomed to doing so are more expert at projecting and sustaining the optical illusions and brushing aside any critique that might threaten to shatter them.

        In this case It’s quite simply that I don’t agree that “there is a need to rethink the way we run referendums in order that the people’s wish can be more democratically expressed”. In my view, that’s starting at the wrong end. It is government that decides whether or not something needs to be done that requires a constitutional amendment. It is government that ensures the enactment of the legislation and decides on the wording of any amendment. It is government that decides, in broad terms, how the process is conducted.

        Again, I know it isn’t your intent – may I emphasise this, but what you are suggesting could very easily be commandeered by government to hone its skills at manipulating public opinion in its favour.

        Imo, it would be far better to consider how people might be persuaded to enhance parliamentary democracy so that there isn’t this continuous recourse to and demand for referendums on matters that a properly functioning parliamentary democracy should be able to deal with. My sense is that the popular demand for referendums is directly related to the ineffectiveness of the Oireachtas. Generally it makes more sense to tackle the cause of a malaise rather than a symptom. But, perhaps, tackling symptoms is the preferred approach – and it is broadly compatible with the optical illusions the ‘powers-that-be’ wish to project and sustain.

  5. Paul there are many things on which I agree with you. But in this case we were not asked to look at whether referendums are democratically enhancing and had we been asked to do that we would of course have written a different report. It may of course be a good idea to examine this after all there are many problems with referendums, over simplification. minority rights, possibilities of abuse and so on. As Im sure you know referendums fell out of favour across much of Europe following missue by former authoritarian regimes. But that would be for a separate paper.
    This research is separate and I believe that making policy is better on the basis of evidence and thus research can help in the conducting of referendums (and of course both sides in any future debate can read it should it be helpful) and is better than operating in the dark on the basis of assumption.

    • Jane,

      Fair enough, but the problem is that there is insufficient, genuinely ‘disinterested’ research in these areas. I realise that the ability to secure funding for such research is a major challenge, but, by accepting the Government’s ‘shilling’, one is forced to become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. It seems that all academic research is, directly or indirectly, in the gift of governments, either individually or collectively at the EU level, or in association with industry which has its own agendas. For example it is truly sad to see such a formerly fine institution as the ESRI so conflicted, compromised and constrained.

      To make the point more specifically, I labour as an economist in the energy consulting game. I can get work anywhere in the world where an opportunity arises and my experience and capability match the requirements – except Ireland. (In passing this is why I have become more and more involved in democratic governance issues, because its absence is the principal cause of energy sector dysfunction in developing economies. And its subversion in advanced economies has the same result.)

      No consulting firm seeking to secure work from the Department, the CER, the ESB or BGE – the principal sources of consulting assignments – will associate with me (for what should be obvious reasons). Even if they are seeking to secure work from businesses ostensibly competing with the ESB or BGE, the same thing applies, because these businesses, in most instances, are not competing; they are seeking to secure a share of the rent being captured by the ESB and BGE. So they don’t want any conflict with with the ‘powers-that-be’.

      Conversely, I wouldn’t want to do the work unless the ToR had a clear focus on enhancing economic efficiency in the public interest.

      But I can understand why most people keep their heads down, go with the flow and help to perpetuate the optical illusions the government and the government-machine seek to project and sustain. It could be extremely career-limiting – even livelihood-threatening – if one were to speak out. Only those with secure tenure at the top of the academic tree might feel sufficiently protected from the retribution that would be exacted, but even they are reliant on public funding in most instances if they wish to expand their research activities – and, in addition, the Government has numerous prestigious baubles and sinecures in its gift that might be withheld if criticism were too sharp and pointed.

      All it would take is a few working together – individuals are easily pilloried and marginalised and there is safety in numbers – and they might be surprised at the public reaction to an initiative that sought to cut through the cant, bullshit and hypocrisy.

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