Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Referendums – They're a load of ballots!

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond presents the White Paper for Scottish independence at the Science Museum in Glasgow
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond presents the White Paper for Scottish independence at the Science Museum in Glasgow

Like the buses we hear nothing about referendums (or is it referenda?) for years and then there’s talk about three of them all at once! – The Scottish independence referendum, definitely happening September 2014, a UK-wide European Union referendum possibly happening in 2017, and locally we have Sinn Fein pushing for a border referendum in Northern Ireland, and possibly in the south as well.

First of all, referendums belong more in the lobbying camp than in the elections family, as if you’re against the current position you don’t have to win a referendum to advance your cause.

The advantage in a referendum always lies with the challenger to the status-quo – In the Scottish case with the pro-independence cause, and here in NI with the pro-all Ireland cause pushed by Sinn Fein. The only full-proof way for proponents of the status-quo (eg for Scotland – pro-Union) to ‘win’ a referendum, and silence their opponents, is to get a majority of the electorate to vote for their cause.

Note, I say a majority of the electorate, not just a majority of the turnout (those who actually vote), and the former is much more difficult to achieve. This was the key factor that made the result of the NI Good Friday agreement referendum in 1998 indisputable – not just that 71% voted for it, but that it was a 71% ‘Yes’ vote on an 81% turnout – i.e. a majority, 58% of the total NI electorate voted ‘Yes’ for the Good Friday agreement.

The opponents of the 1998 agreement at that time could not dispute this result, and worked the post-agreement process, with the aim of altering the parts they didn’t like at a future stage. Put it this way, if the 1998 Belfast agreement referendum had been a 71% ‘Yes’ vote on say a 60% turnout, the history of NI in the last 15 years would have been entirely different!

So what are the chances of the pro-union camp in Scotland getting a majority of the Scottish electorate to vote for their cause next September – close to zero! What are the chances of the pro-union camp here in NI getting a majority of the NI electorate to vote for their cause in any referendum – based on recent elections, unlikely! In terms of the Scottish referendum the polls show that the result will probably be inconclusive with the pro-independence camp scoring at least 35-40% of the vote.

NB I say at least here, as I would still not rule out the pro-independence camp still winning overall, though that looks unlikely at the moment. But SNP Leader Alex Salmond is one of the smartest politicians in these islands, and he has the momentum in his favour, so who knows!

Don’t get me wrong, the independence for Scotland campaign need to score at least 35% to look credible, and if they achieve this minimum (for them) result, they can start to plug the line that a majority of people in Scotland didn’t vote to stay in the Union.

This is a powerful line and will keep the argument going. The SNP can then push for what their probable real objective is at this stage – Maximum Devolution Powers, or DevoMax! Similar considerations apply to the Sinn Fein campaign for a referendum in NI – They would probably aim to get at least 35-40% voting for a united ireland in any NI referendum, and they can then start saying a majority of the ‘six counties’ electorate didn’t support the Union!

So don’t think any of the forthcoming referendums will solve anything, unless they go against the Status-Quo. But as seems likely, if Scotland narrowly vote to stay in the UK, and the UK as a whole votes to stay in the EU, then the debates will just rage on.

Based on the key fact that the majority of the electorates in each of these referendums will not support the current status-quo positions, then the pro-Scottish independence, and the anti-EU camps, will immediately start new campaigns for repeat referendums further down the line. After all the UK had a European Union referendum in 1975, and did that stop the in-out Euro debate? – I think not!

Bill White is Managing Director of LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph

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