The title of political journalist Miriam Lord’s front page article in The Irish Times, “The nation gives one great big sigh of relief,” nicely encapsulates the collective feeling of Ireland’s political, financial and media establishments on the Yes vote in last week’s referendum on whether to join the European Fiscal Compact.
Backers of a Yes vote were definitely on edge after a steady stream of unofficial statistics and anecdotes about low turnout on voting day. Indeed, turnout was low. Just over 50% of the electorate showed up to the polls. But this time, unlike on previous occasions, the low turnout did not augur a No vote, or even a close vote.
The referendum passed by a margin of 60% to 40%. There were a number of factors at play that convinced people to vote Yes. Guaranteed access to funding via the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) in the event that Ireland needs to be bailed out again in future was probably the primary motivator. Putting access to funds for a bailout in jeopardy, notwithstanding the contrary protestations of the No side, was a risk that Irish voters just weren’t willing to take. This doesn’t portray a confident people. A clear majority now regards a second bailout as inevitable.
Although the likely prevalent rationale of Yes voters is far from inspiring, a forensic examination of the No vote is deeply troubling. Voters rejected the referendum in 5 of the 43 constituencies in the 26 counties. The constituencies were Donegal Northeast (56%-44%), Donegal Southwest (55%-45%), Dublin Northwest (53%-47%), Dublin South Central (51%-49%) and Dublin Southwest (51%-49%).
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The three Dublin constituencies contain some of the country’s most economically deprived and socially disadvantaged areas. Many residents never felt the effects of the economic boom. Consequential social problems, like alcohol and/or drug addiction, teen pregnancy and anti-social behaviour, are rampant.
Other residents managed to buy their own homes, yet in the wake of the economic downturn, are now in negative equity and struggle to pay mortgages. Reporters and others present at election count centres commented on the correlation between urban poverty and a No vote as it unfolded.
On a smaller scale, similar trends emerged from working class and poor sections of other cities and towns throughout Ireland. In Longford Town, for instance, it was reported that a ballot box from the town centre held 80 No and 40 Yes votes. An opened ballot box from the more affluent outskirts of the town revealed almost the exact inverse result.
Donegal, meanwhile, returned an even higher No vote than the three Dublin constituencies. This is partly attributable to the county’s being fertile Sinn Féin territory. Pearse Doherty TD (member of Dáil Éireann, Ireland’s lower house of parliament) represents Donegal Southwest and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn TD represents Donegal Northeast. They helped to lead Sinn Féin’s campaign for a No vote. Additionally, Thomas Pringle, a popular independent TD for Donegal Northeast, advocated a No vote and has initiated a legal challenge to the ESM.
While these individual politicians and their substantial followings are partially responsible for the victory of the No side in their constituencies, there is more than that. It is not as manifestly visible as in Dublin, but rural poverty has long been a vexing issue for Donegal. It is not as readily apparent in the county because of its young people’s historic and ongoing high rate of emigration to all corners of the globe. Even during the economic boom, young men and women from beautiful, if isolated, parts of Donegal continued to emigrate.
Donegal emigrants with whom I speak in Boston cite the dearth of opportunities close to where they were born and raised, as well as their pronounced geographic and cultural detachment from Dublin, among their primary reasons for seeking a new life elsewhere. Parents of those who have left lament that poverty has persisted to such a great extent in Donegal and mourn the indefinite absences of their children. Their resounding No vote is, in some ways, an understandable rebuke to a government – and to “the system” – that they believe has always neglected them.
On the flip side, in Dublin South, Dublin Southeast and Dún Laoghaire, three of the wealthiest constituencies in the country, more than 70% of voters approved the referendum. The diametrically opposed views of well-off and struggling Irish people on the European Fiscal Compact bespeak a real danger to social cohesion in this country. As much as contemporary observers rightly lament still-existing political division based on allegiances in a civil war waged some nine decades ago, stark political division between “haves” and “have nots” poses a far more threatening dilemma.
The Labour party has traditionally been the champion of the working class, the poor and all those Irish people in difficult circumstances. Labour urged a Yes vote in the referendum and claimed that voters in Ireland feeling the pain of these trying times were better served by affirming, not rejecting, close ties to Europe. Implicit in its political messaging was that access to funding via the ESM would be the only way that various social welfare benefits could be paid to those dependent upon them, should “worse come to worst.”
Voters who are now badly off rejected Labour’s plea for a Yes vote. And a significant portion of what Labour would have always regarded its base seems to have abandoned the party for Sinn Féin, the Socialist Party and the People before Profit grouping. Propelled by a potent mixture of an ideological view that Ireland ought to reject the dictates of its “foreign masters,” visceral dislike for and distrust of the political establishment and shrewd, albeit cynical, political posturing, they have surged in the polls. They been embraced by the disenfranchised and the disempowered in Ireland and have become the de facto leaders of the opposition.
Unless Labour can regain the support of what one analyst called the “manual working class” on the day after the referendum vote, it faces electoral disaster in the local and European elections in 2014. All things considered, the party faces an uphill fight.