So the Irish public has voted and they have responded with an emphatic no. I voted yes, but wasn’t surprised at the result. Listening to the analysis on the Pat Kenny Show on RTE, I think people were genuinely shocked. While everyone had commented that there was a strong No Campaign, there seemed to be a sense that just about enough had been done to convince the public of the benefits.

The long and short of it is that the Yes Campaign was abysmal from start to finish. I’m not going to weigh in on the political analysis, Stephen Collins has a great piece on the Irish Times website in this respect. I am simply going to repeat my thoughts from a month ago. From a communications perspective the Yes Campaign was poor, it gave voters few tangible reasons to vote to approve the Lisbon Treaty. How are messages like “A soul for Europe”, “A Citizens’ Europe”, “Proud to be Irish – Yes to Europe” supposed to motivate you to go out and vote yes, when the no campaign comes out with consistent messaging on a range of issues from corporation tax to neutrality. Ant wonder that the Irish Times/TNS poll before the referendum pointed out that “the reason most often cited by No voters is that they don’t know what they are voting for or they don’t understand the treaty – with 30 per cent of No voters listing this as the main reason for their decision.”

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, puff taglines like “A Citizen’s Europe” are all well and good if you can illustrate them to the public. However anytime any yes campaigner got the opportunity to talk, they seemed insistent on talking down the No Campaign – a tactic which never works with Irish people. Why take up precious time immediately prior to the referendum to discuss Libertas’ funding? It was the equivalent of Enda Kenny urging the public to vote for him in the next general election because he is better looking than Brian Cowen. Libertas’ funding was irrelevant, the yes campaigners should have used the opportunity to show how the Lisbon Treaty could help improve the situation in Chad, combat climate change or take a combined approach to immigration. The negative attitude in their campaigning hardly encouraged the electorate and each and every time it was brought up a minimum of thirty seconds airtime was wasted.

Ivan Yeats made some insightful comments on the Pat Kenny Show when it became apparent that the no vote had prevailed. Politicians had left campaigning so late, that they were effectively asking the electorate to trust them. As the RTE news reports later pointed out, many politicians were left reflecting on the reasons behind a No victory with some pointing to an obvious ‘disconnect’ between the people and politicians.

This disconnect between politicians and the public is obvious. There are countless research reports to underline this. We even had Enda Kenny point this out at the launch of the Edelman Trust Barometer launch earlier this year. For some reason Fianna Fail are trying to push some of the blame on Kenny and Fine Gael, when the blame completely lies on their doorstep. Kenny offered the best advice on promoting the Yes Campaign back at our launch event when he said that third parties like Corporate Ireland and NGOs had an important role to play.

Unfortunately the only good argument from the Government came late in the day, Richard Delevan points out Dermot Ahern’s passionate argument to vote yes on the Marian Finucane Show on RTE, the weekend prior to referendum day:

First, what Dermot Ahern said, then why I believe it’s effective:

He starts out badly, threatening to go into abstract eurospeak: “The treaty is about trying to make the EU work better. To get 27 to agree is extremely difficult.” [snore]

Then he gives an example of WHAT THIS MEANS from when he was minister for foreign affairs:

The UN asked us to send troops into Chad and Darfur. The decision was made at a high level — to do that — in the EU; but unfortunately because of the arcane rules, it was delayed. The went out to Chad October in the middle of nowhere, in a desert. I was asked if i would speak to a number of women. I was asked questions through an interpreter. A lady with a child — thankfully they weren’t starving because the UN and the EU were feeding them — they were there because they had been, basically, run off their land, nearby and also from Darfur. And they were there for protection. The first question a woman asked me through an interpreter was, why is Europe taking so long to come here with their troops?
…In my view what we’re trying to do in this treaty is to make those sorts of decisions quicker and better, the difficult issues of the world.

Eamon Dunphy could no longer contain himself at this point, declaring this to be “emotive nonsense”. But unless Ahern is seriously overegging the pudding about his trip to Chad, and admittedly he breaks his own rhythm a few times in trying to get out this anecdote, this seems effective to me, and that this is what’s been missing from pro-European arguments. Here’s what I think was working:

1) DA is telling a STORY, not babbling in eurospeak about process and procedures
2) The story has actual human beings
3) The story isn’t gratuitous – it makes real in human terms why the labourious nature of EU decisionmaking isn’t just an aesthetic or theoretical problem. Ahern’s underlying argument smacks you in the face: the EU could have acted sooner to stop genocide in Darfur, but it was prevented by an unwieldy decision-making process
4) Even though I don’t think it’s a slam dunk that Lisbon actually fixes the problem, DA is at least getting the argument out of airless abstraction and into something a lot of people actually care about

The final point I am going to make about the Lisbon Treaty is that anyone that thinks that traditional advertising is dead should take a walk around the streets of Ireland and see what an important role the No Campaign posters played. Normally the criticism of traditional advertising goes along the lines of “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” In this instance, ask the Yes Campaign about the half that was wasted.

12 Responses to “The Lisbon Treaty & The Yes Campaign – Communications Gone Wrong”  

  1. 1 Michele

    To be perfectly frank I don’t think the NO vote was a success of the NO campaign, but more a failure of the YES campaign.
    Most people don’t really understand how the EU works, so asking them to vote on anything related to it is going to cause issues and it is far too easy to confuse them with non-related rubbish

  2. 2 Piaras

    I agree to an extent Michele. While the Yes Campaign failed to engage voters, the No Campaign was cleverly able to play upon their fears. Some of it was outlandish – Jim Corr and Coir – but others like Libertas were clever in their messaging, such as continually asking whether yes campaigners had read the text of the treaty.

  3. 3 Erin LaPorte

    Some call this a “triumph of democracy.” Sorry, this is utter poppycock! This is a minority of EU citizens in Ireland that have deprived that 18 other Member states of a treaty the ratified…The Irish deciding what treaties the Europe can and cannot have is the most undemocratic – and tyrannical practice there is… We should hope that Sarkozy and other European leaders go on with the radification process, as the Lisbon Treaty is needed for Europe, and 18 Member States have voted for it.

    Also, I, for one, would like to find out just who funded the “no” campaigners. The rest of Europe should be able to find out if the “no” campaign received funding from foreign sources, chiefly from the western side of the Atlantic. There are those in America that found the Lisbon Treaty a threat to the Atlantic Alliance and the “special relationship” between the US and UK.

    We should hope that the Lisbon Treaty is NOT dead and that the independent-from-NATO European defense and security plans go forward…
    A “no” vote against the Lisbon Treaty is a “yes” vote for the continuance of American dominance in Europe!

  4. 4 Christian

    Thanks a lot for this blog article. I’m still trying to figure out why the Irish did what they did to the rest of us and this article at least helped a bit. I still don’t understand why anybody would take on to vote – and votes no – if he didn’t understand what the election was all about instead of reading some newspaper article in the first place. But then I don’t understand why the message “If you want to change the EU, vote for the European Parliament, but give it some power first with Lisbon first” was so hard to convey either.

  5. 5 Paddy

    The Yes campaign could not but offer platitudes – otherwise, they’d have to discuss the meat of the treaty, which clearly transforms the EU into a federal state, thus diminishing the sovereignty of member states. While you might prefer that (although you won’t publicly admit it), many Irish people don’t.

  6. 6 Piaras

    Hmm shades of Jim Corr me thinks.

  7. 7 Jer Ireland

    Piaras, its a bit too easy to tar the no side with the jim corr brush. Paddy’s point is simply made and hardly 9/11esque.

    I am also amused by the people who say that the no side didnt win it was the yes side that lost. Thats a brilliant sentiment. heard similar statements that Obama didn’t win the nomination hillary lost it.

  8. 8 Piaras

    Jer – The Jim Corr comment is directed at Paddy due to his tone.

    Also if you read both most posts you’ll see that I am complimentary to the No Campaign, think it was really well run and despite the questions being raised about Libertas’ funding I also think their participation was great for democracy in general. However, it is a valid to say that the Yes Campaign was not well run and contributed to their failure to win the referendum.

    The bigger issue out of all of this really is that a second referendum is going to be coming down the line in the next nine months. Even people who voted yes are wondering about the democratic aspects of it seeing as the electorate have already made their feelings known.

  9. 9 capslockjam

    I read the lisbon treaty. It required reading the previous ‘constitution’ for reference.
    I voted no. And most likely will have to vote again.

  10. 10 FreeMan

    To all who will be voting yes in the re-run of the Lisbon Treaty vote, please realise that you will be voting on the EXACT same text and the treaty will not change one bit.

    You will receive some “solemn political promises” which effectively count for nothing as they are not legally binding, they are declarations and not protocol – google the difference if your not sure.

    In fact i’ll provide it here:

    Protocol: Protocols are attached to the various Treaties and have exactly the same legal status as the Treaty itself. They usually relate to one particular aspect of Union activity.

    Declaration: A declaration by all Member States or by some may be made in conjunction with a Treaty. This does not have legal force, but expresses the political intention of the signatory/signatories.

    Is it disingenuous of our government to attempt to mislead the Irish public that the ‘concessions’ gained from Brussels are legally binding? I certainly think so.

  11. 11 Germain

    VOTE NO for the germans and for every folks in europe that was not given a chance to decide. NO MEANS NO! god bless..

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