Low poll would reflect a referendum campaign that just failed to catch fire

World of Politics with Harry McGee – harrymcgee@gmail.com

I’m surprised at the lack of engagement with the referendums next Friday. Sure, nobody was ever going to get into a lather of sweat about a referendum on a Court of Criminal Appeal (though it’s not entirely a good thing). But the proposal to demolish one of the pillars of our State, one of the bedrocks of our Constitution, has also left the public underwhelmed… and that’s putting it very mildly.

After all did the idea to hold a referendum on the Seanad not stem from populist sentiment? Wasn’t it Enda Kenny’s response in 2009 to the public mood that politicians and the institutions they had built up around them had fallen into disrepute? So successful was Kenny’s stunt, if it was that, that all the main parties adopted the same position going into the 2011 election.

It’s obvious to anybody who has followed politics in anything more than a cursory way over the past two years that the mood has changed. There may still be anger at the way that the establishment, political and financial, led the country into excess and living beyond our means and then frittered it all away. But that anger has subdued.

What was raw and immediate two years ago is now more resigned, more indifferent. So when politicians now post the question, should we abolish the Seanad, the most coherent response that is coming back is we don’t really care.

The consequence of all that? It looks like the turnout will be low, as low as the mid-twenties, as happened with the children’s referendum and a referendum on bail over a quarter of a century ago. Neither are directly comparable, only to say that the lower the turnout the more unreliable opinion polls are.

So while the polls over the past few months have been suggesting a comfortable gap for the Yes side (the abolitionists) the reality may turn out to be different. A low turnout will mean that only the most committed will vote.

And there are two pieces of conventional wisdom that have been bandied around about those in the past few weeks. The first is that a majority will be middle class. The second is that those middle class voters are strongly veering towards a reformed Seanad, which means a No vote rather than a Yes vote.

The difficulty is they cannot really be tested for accuracy until after the event… in other words, after people have voted.

For many months I have been saying that I think that a No vote would prevail. In recent weeks though, I sense it might be a close run thing. The fact that the gap has not closed in the Red C opinion polls is an important indicator. That surveys all potential voters, not only those who are more or less guaranteed to vote. The very likely voters will include a lot of No’s but lately it seems that the Yes side might shade it.

The other thing that has been slightly disconcerting has been that the debate has rarely been able to go deeper than the superficial.

For most of last week, we witnessed an artificial row with the opposition leaders trying to bait Taoiseach Enda Kenny into a televised debate. RTE even got into the act by extending such an invitation to Mr Kenny and Micheál Martin. But it was clear that once Kenny said No, he couldn’t backslide from that position once he made it.

In a sense it’s a pity that Kenny didn’t consent to the debate. Because a televised verbal duel between the country’s political leader is always an event. That means it is broadcast at primetime with a primetime audience.

The outcome of the poll often turns on them – and parties, therefore, always prep exhaustively, trying to have responses ready for every trick question and issue raised.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.