How to secure a second referendum, by a man who's done it before 1 year ago

How to secure a second referendum, by a man who's done it before

Micheál Martin was part of a team that gave Ireland a second referendum on the Lisbon treaty, in the end the public reversed its decision

Micheál Martin knows how to get a second referendum - and win it. The leader of the opposition in Ireland became foreign minister just before a referendum on the EU's Lisbon treaty was held in June 2008. Whilst the majority of government and other prominent political figures supported ratifying the treaty, with Martin leading the campaign, the Irish people said no.

Just over a year later the vote was repeated but returned a different result. The Irish people reversed their original decision from 53 per cent no/47 per cent yes to 33 per cent no and 67 per cent yes only 16 months later.

Martin told Dion Fanning on Ireland Unfiltered about the political process of revisiting an issue so soon after the electorate has given its verdict.

"The comparison between Lisbon 1 and 2 is enormous," Martin said. "I was appointed foreign affairs minister and within that week we had lost Lisbon 1. So my very first meeting was with all the other foreign affairs ministers.

"Initially the first press release by the Hungarian president after Lisbon 1 would have killed any chance of a second referendum and we changed it, with the help of Swedes, and others. We said 'Look, the first thing you do, is acknowledge and respect the vote of the Irish people and give us a period of reflection to think this through.' Which they did in the end."


During that period of reflection Ireland's government conducted extensive electoral behaviour research, collaborating with University College Dublin, to establish what motivated voters to reject the treaty.

Martin said: "Corporation tax was one, losing your commissioner was another, for example. At the time Europe was talking about rotating your commissioner, you might get one every eight years or 12 years as opposed to every four. Neutrality and independence was a big one.

"So, we then went to work with Europe and negotiated. We got the commissioner back. We were able to say, 'You had a poster up saying 'Vote No, get your commissioner back.' We’ve negotiated that.' We said corporation tax was a sovereign matter, decided by the nation state. We changed legislation on defence, in terms of preserving our military neutrality, we did win those concessions."

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28: Activists in support of freedom of movement demonstrate against Theresa May's Brexit plan by hanging a banner from Westminster Bridge on November 28, 2018 in London, England. British Prime Minister Theresa May May will visit Scotland today as she continues her tour of the UK ahead of a crucial vote on her Brexit plan in Parliament in December. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images) Activists demonstrate against Theresa May's Brexit plan on Westminster Bridge (Credit: Jack Taylor)

The keystone for the Fianna Fáil politician, however, was on how 'No' voters were treated in Ireland's discourse after Lisbon 1. It's his most pertinent point for the UK to heed.

"The crucial point was this. If you start lecturing people about their first decision and telling them they were stupid and wrong and ignorant and please change your mind, all you do is harden their position and you lose some of the soft vote that went 'yes' for Lisbon.

"I had to tell some real Europhiles this 'Stop telling people they were wrong. Tell them we’ve listened to you, we've heard you, we've made changes, now will you please consider voting yes, will you please be open to voting yes.'

"Remember, in every election, you have hardliners, you have soft yeses you have soft no's, the magic is always to keep your soft yeses and bring your soft no's over, if you want the yes vote."

Martin believes to achieve just that is "very doable in Britain."

"The devil you know is better than the devil you don't. I was under no illusion, people didn't vote yes for Lisbon 2 on the notion that they were suddenly had a new found love of the EU, the storm clouds were gathering economically, but the storm clouds gathering was a help because people felt greater safety in the herd.

"That will be similar in Britain, ultimately I think that will be the call. They've looked over the cliff now, they don't like what they've seen and a lot of what they were promised hasn't materialised and it's clear there was no blue print."