Election result after election result says very but referendum results hint at a large undercurrent of dissent, favourable to progressive parties but which somehow has not been fully exploited by progressive parties.
Despite an overwhelming campaign by the Yes side in Lisbon 2 with every type of trick, lie and inducement played by the Yes side 32.9 % of voter choose not to listen to their betters and still voted no.
Referendums have often hinted at a strange dislocation or dissatisfaction amongst the Irish electorate. Frequently despite a unified establishment call for one result a large cohort, often 30-35% would not bend the knee and do as it was told. Effectively saying to establishment parties that we do not trust you on matters of social policy, we do not trust your guarantees on Europe and further integration. Its difficult to know how much to read into these referendum results due to the single focus associated with referendums but sure might as well give it a go.
Repeatedly in referendum after referendum a block of 30-35% voters separate from the herd, but not in every referendum. This is not a contrarian vote but a reasoned choice.
The abortion referendum, the divorce referendum and every Euro referendum most especially all pointed to a large segment of voters who would not toe the line automatically - but were not necessarily a cohesive group. However it did point up that Irish politics is not as a monolithic as some might imagine - yet election after election seemed to prove otherwise. On social issues and distant issues such as europe the left had some traction but on the immediate issues of economic policy and governance we and other left seemed to suffer or at the least not fully exploit the possibilities inherent in such a large voter block.
Consider the Divorce referendum of 86 - Areas in Dublin with Workers Party representation had a higher Yes vote than elsewhere. 36% voted yes across the state.
Look at Dublin North East where Pat McCartan of the Workers Party won a seat in 1987 , 51% voted Yes to the Divorce Referendum, 15% more than the state average (36%). Right across every area of the constituency the Yes vote was higher than the national average. Yet this was not a Dublin/Urban phenomenon. Rural constituencies also had very significant voter blocks who voted Yes (and this in many constituencies were choice was limited to FF and FG with no other options available). Who knows how they would have voted otherwise.
Where did it pass Dublin North, Dublin NE, Dublin South, Dublin south east, Dublin south west,Dun laoighaire,The Workers' party held seats in half of those constituencies (DNE, DSW,DunLao) in 1989. In the other three Dublin North, Dublin NE and Dublin SE - Sinn Fein would soon be fighting for seats save Dublin North where the Socialist Party was particularly strong.
Looking at Lisbon 1 you see the same pattern. Where were the big No votres - Cavan Monaghan, Cork North Central, both Donegals, in several Dublin areas constituencies but many voted yes as well. Kerry North, Louth, Mayo, Meath West, Waterford/Wexford. All areas where Sinn Fein have either already established themselves solidly or were building well.
Lisbon 1 helped give a clear view of who these dissenting voters were. In the most affluent constituencies of Dublin, such as Dun Laoghaire, where even a modest home was running at €1 million 60% or more voted for the treaty. In working class areas of the city, it was the no vote which scored in excess of 60%. Brouard and Tiberj (2006) show that precisely the same division between rich and poor, or the skilled and unskilled, can be discerned in the French 2005 vote.
In Ireland the results were explained as follows - rich with a nice house meant well educated meant you were smart enough to vote yes while working class (urban or rural) meant you lacked the wit to realise Yes was the way to go so better give the poor cráturs another chance with Lisbon 2.
Without trying to extend this too far look at an area like Kildare where neither SF nor Workers Party made a breakthrough, instead there it is indeed monolithic politics. Looking at the 1981 election you see the names McCreevy, Stagg, Durkan, Power and Dukes. Those names continue with occasional swaps and some substitutions finally up until 2007. The same political menu on offer for 30 years. Kildare North voted strongly for Lisbon 1, while Kildare south just about rejected it with 51%. Kildare south was one of the few constituencies in the south without a SF candidate in the 2007 elections. One candidate in the 2009 locals did a solid job in building the vote in whats a difficult constituency for progressive parties. Yet even in such a difficult location political strength is being built.
There would appear to be at the least a rough rule of thumb whereby referendums can demonstrate the resonance a political party has with its local constituents and the prospects it has for building further electoral strength by indicating where voters are registering significant distrust of establishment parties on issues of sovereignty or social policy.
In the '86 Divorce referendum The Workers party helped deliver yes votes in several areas , the other Yes vote constituencies would all prove fertile for SF or Socialist parties. In Lisbon 1 strong no votes were achieved in areas with Sinn Fein TDs or with strong Sinn Fein presences.
Irish politics can appear monolithic with FF and FG swapping time and time again. But the results of many referendums in the south have shown the existence of a large voter block ready to defy the monolithic parties and follow the lead of parties with more progressive and radical agendas.
Even without the chaos of financial collapse it could be argued that there was sufficient room for political growth over the years for a progressive party to wean large sections of the electorate away from Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
It could be argued that Irish politics was not as monolithic as we might have imagined. Yet despite the evidence from referendums that a large block of voters, in some areas quite a significant no. were willing to disregard received wisdom and choose their own course, somehow or other those votes didnt translate into electoral gains.
What stopped the centralisation of these dissenting voters around a progressive party? While the reasons for voting against the majority differs from referendum and within each referendum it does appear that there is quite a large block of voters out there who are willing to stand on the same side as parties like SF.
Today in 2010, after Lisbon 1, we still have clear evidence that a large group of voters are willing to dissent from the received wisdom. The addition of a financial crisis makes the opportunity to coalesce those votes all the more doable.
How should Sinn Fein best do this? The last party to do try to achieve this realignment was the Workers' Party but it was not able to complete that realignment due to a no. of reasons. It collapsed just as it may have been on the verge of staring that realignment. The Fianna Fail working class vote has dropped from its high of 45% in 1969 to a low of 32% in 1997. Yet it went back up to 47% of working class votes in 2002. The opportunity to wrest working class votes away from FF had passed... but not for long.
That opportunity is back with a vengeance. Once this crisis ends then there might not be a period of such flux for another decade