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The Irish “no” and the rich-poor/urban-rural divide

The Irish ‘no’ – like the 2005 French ‘non’ – shows a clear poor/rich and urban/rural divide. Working-class and rural voters are systematically voting against further European integration. European leaders should take note.

Like many of my compatriots, I spent Friday evening in a pub. In my case the pub was in the heart of France’s beautiful Chartreuse region, and it was full to the brim of French and Dutch football supporters, the latter increasingly rambunctious as the evening wore on. It was a good-natured and very European occasion, with the local children, mine included, responding to Dutch singing with a spirited version of La Marseilleise. It was also a highly symbolic one, at least to this Irishman, bringing together citizens of all three countries to have voted no to the latest round of European institutional changes.

At first sight the French no vote has little in common with the Irish rejection of the Lisbon treaty. In France the scaremongers said that further integration would lead to a fiscal race to the bottom, and place France's liberal abortion laws in jeopardy. In Ireland the scaremongers said that further integration would lead to a fiscal race to the top, and the imposition of liberal abortion laws on what remains a largely Catholic country. And yet there are striking socio-economic similarities between the two votes that Europe's politicians will disregard at their peril.

A glance at the electoral map suffices to confirm what earlier opinion polls had indicated: the Irish vote divided along class lines in a stark and disturbing fashion. In the most affluent constituencies of Dublin, such as Dun Laoghaire, where even a modest home can cost upwards of €1 million (although that is changing), 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.

There are at least two ways of interpreting such patterns. The first would hold that well educated voters are more politically sophisticated and better able to understand the issues involved in a complex amendment to the institutional underpinnings of the European Union. The second interpretation is that, on the contrary, both rich and poor are capable of correctly discerning where their economic interests lie, and vote accordingly. The argument would be that globalisation generally, and European integration more narrowly, has overwhelmingly favoured skilled workers, at least in affluent countries such as France, Ireland and the Netherlands. Unskilled workers, by contrast, feel under threat from Romanian (or Asian) competition, or immigration from Eastern Europe and further afield. And while those of us who are more fortunate might regret it, it is hardly surprising that -- in accordance with Heckscher-Ohlin logic -- they vote accordingly.

Unbelievably, given the importance of the vote, there were no exit polls taken which might give us an indication of why those who voted no did so. But I have to say that my bet is that the gap between middle-class and working-class voting patterns has a lot more to do with different interests, real or perceived, than with supposed differences in political sophistication. To a large extent this prior is based on the work of Anna Maria Mayda and Dani Rodrik, and Richard Sinnott and myself, on the determinants of attitudes towards globalisation across countries. That work has shown that while the unskilled are more hostile than the skilled to trade and immigration in rich countries, in poor countries it is the unskilled who are the most pro-globalisation -- which seems difficult to reconcile with the argument that the less well educated simply cannot be expected to understand the benefits of international economic integration. If this interpretation is correct, then the Irish referendum result, in one of the most pro-European members of the Union, should serve as a wake-up call to politicians that if they want to maintain the benefits of open international markets, as I do, they will simply have to take more notice of the concerns of those who are being left behind.

Of course, I wouldn't want to claim that this referendum result was simply about the economic interests of different groups of voters. The greatest difficulty facing the pro-treaty side was in articulating a compelling reason to vote yes, when the European Union has clearly not collapsed in the wake of the 2005 and 2007 enlargements. Public mistrust of politicians, in Ireland as in France, meant that assurances that the treaty really was necessary, all appearances to the contrary, were always going to fall on a great many deaf ears. As in the Netherlands, there was surely a fear that as a small country Ireland stood to lose by more than France or Germany in giving up its veto -- and this impression is bound to grow in the weeks ahead, if as seems likely Europe's leaders attempt to ignore this Irish roadblock to their institutional ambitions on the grounds that Ireland is…small. Some voters dislike the way that the French and Dutch referendum results were essentially ignored by Europe’s leadership. And so on.

My claim is simply that economic interests were one factor among many, and should not be ignored. If working-class and rural voters are systematically voting against further European integration, that is something which Europe's political leadership will need to listen to. The fact that they feel this way also explains why so many of my French neighbours and friends are congratulating me this weekend on my compatriots’ vote. I am of course accepting their expressions of solidarity gratefully, without necessarily letting them know that had I been living in Ireland this year, I would have voted yes. The way things stand this weekend, Ireland is going to need all the friends it can get.


Sylvain Brouard and Vincent Tiberj (2006). The French Referendum: The Not So Simple Act of Saying Nay. PS: Political Science & Politics, 39, pp 261-268.

Kevin H. O’Rourke and d Richard Sinnott (2006). “The determinants of individual attitudes towards immigration,” European Journal of Political Economy 22 (2006), 838-861.

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