Lisbon Essays (14): Women of Ireland, what will it be?

Gerard O’Neill speculates on whether or not women will decide the Lisbon vote. They were the largest single group (numerically) to swing the last vote to a No. He observes that neither side have particularly targeted the female voter. This is largely correct, if the evidence my camera-phone in Dublin last week is anything to go by, (although Coir’s new Heart poster campaign seems almost entirely directed at women). Left to their own devices, Gerard reckons women may just swing it for the yes camp. But as he notes, women are much more likely to change their minds in the face of a good campaign. However, it was uncertainty over what was in the Treaty was the winning factor last time out, and this time it is likely to swing on economic uncertainty, which, he argues, may just shade the women’s vote for the Yes campaign.

By Gerard O’Neill

Will the women of Ireland save the Lisbon Treaty?

It’s a big ask, but a necessary one. Remember, it was the women of Ireland that brought down the Lisbon Treaty first time round. Whilst a majority of men voted Yes (51%), a majority of women voted No (56%). As similar percentages of men and women voted, and their shares of the electorate are broadly the same, this meant that the Treaty was rejected.

All that’s according to a European Commission survey conducted just days after the referendum in early June 2008. Of course there were other demographic differences in the voting pattern – by age and social class, for example. But none of these demographic sub-groups were big enough on their own to swing the vote their way if everyone else was voting the other way.

Why did the majority of women vote No last June? And what has changed, if anything, this time round? Both the Commission’s research and the Department of Foreign Affair’s own survey six weeks later provide some insight.

In essence, for women – as the campaign slogan went – it was a case of ‘if you don’t know, vote No’. Four in ten women who voted No did so because ‘I do not know enough about the treaty’ (versus 3 in 10 men who voted No). Also, women were more likely to vote No than men in order to ‘safeguard Irish neutrality’.

What can we learn from all this in relation to next month’s referendum?

Last time, nearly a quarter (23%) of women changed their minds about which way they would vote during the campaign (versus 18% of men). Also women made their minds up somewhat later than men, i.e.: only a week or days before the vote itself. If this pattern were to repeat itself, then the final outcome would not be clear (from a campaigning perspective) until days before the 2nd October referendum.

What has surprised me is the lack of a ‘female tone’ in either the Yes or No campaigns. Both campaigns have struck me as very ‘male’ in tone: lots of facts, forecasts and assertions, with little sense of “we’re all in this together/we all need to pull together”.

A message, I suspect, that would resonate more strongly with a female audience (and probably with quite a few men). But perhaps both sides have decided this isn’t necessary.

It may be that the women of Ireland have gone from worrying about their sons fighting in foreign wars, to worrying about their sons finding work in foreign countries. I’m sure they have – if only by the anecdotal (and therefore unscientific!) evidence of many conversations with women who have, quote, ‘decided to vote Yes this time’.

Ireland is going through an ‘equal opportunity’ recession: no gender, age group or social class has been left unscathed by its impact. This has meant rising unemployment for women as well as for men: with evidence in recent months that women are being disproportionately affected by redundancies (reversing the pattern we saw at the start of the year).

As we approach the second referendum, women are experiencing much the same uncertainty, doubt and worry as men. My forecast: the women of Ireland will vote Yes this time. And so the women of Ireland will save the Lisbon Treaty.

Gerard O’Neill is Chairman of Amárach Research, and writes in a personal capacity. His views and opinions on Ireland and the future can be found at

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