#GFA25: How the YES campaign achieved its strategic outcome…

In March 1998 I helped found and lead the YES Campaign for the 22nd May Referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, actually before the agreement had even been reached – and while 85% of voters had no confidence in any resolution to our centuries of seemingly ‘intractable’ conflict.


Let me approach this from the campaigner’s perspective, rather than as analyst, policy-maker or pundit.

First, the motives; when a dozen of us met on St Patrick’s Day to discuss a YES vote, we felt:

  • That a deal remained probable (inevitable, in most of our eyes) and civil society should have a role to play, having been excluded from the formal processes at Stormont;
  • PM John Major’s ’triple lock’ guaranteed that after the two governments agreed, and then the ten local parties elected to the Talks process in 1996 agreed, the people must agree in a referendum on each side of the border; who would mobilise voters?
  • We correctly surmised that the politicians would be knackered after two years of talks and would be in no position to articulate the strengths of the deal they would have agreed, cohesively across all the YES parties;
  • They would have limited time to prepare, to fundraise and to organise; they might even keep some powder dry for the subsequent first Assembly elections in June.

So, our activist, campaigner instincts kicked in; let’s prepare for what we would now dub a ‘pop-up’ office, governance arrangements, cross-community board, a pool of unemployed, seconded staffers and volunteers, simple messaging (applicable regardless of the eventual shape of the deal), design of visual images, slogans, posters, billboards and newspaper adverts (no broadcast advertising allowed, no Referendum leaflet to every household offered – this was all before the Electoral Commission and YES/NO sides had been invented).

Our fundraising was derisory before Good Friday on April 10th (‘Quintin, how on earth can I give you cash for a campaign before a deal has even been agreed, and no-one believes there will be a deal?’), but then our voluntary sector fundraising experience paid dividends (the Bob Geldof mouthy mantra from Band Aid reverberated in our ears, and then from our mouths!) and we garnered £400,000 in the next six weeks; as we predicted the YES parties managed to generate very little and what they did they kept for their own candidates in June.

As campaigners, there are some techniques we deployed that might offend my later policy and public engagement principles, but the key strategy was simple:

  • Make it safe to vote YES
  • Avoid detail, and getting dragged into the weeds
  • Build cross-party alliances and coalitions to show voters this was not an old sectarian choice
  • Undermine the opposition (led by Paisley Snr and Bob McCartney, recalcitrant unionist outliers)
  • Mobilise sectors (business, non-profits, trade associations, faith groups, unions, victims) and then disciplines (doctors, school students, teachers, architects, social workers…).

Campaign tactics included a raft of creative events and stunts (described by The Times’s Martin Fletcher as the only campaign demonstrating ‘flair and panache’, including:

  • The huge YES Banner down the Europa
  • A video cassette song and message posted to 13,000 first time voters
  • Louis MacNeice poetry floated down the Lagan by Rita Duffy
  • Messages from celebrities from Adrian Dunbar, Barry Douglas, Barry McGuigan and Kenneth Branagh to local stars
  • YES slogan on the Black Mountain
  • Victim names across the Ormeau Bridge
  • Cross-community arts and sports events
  • Advans and local street corner debates
  • Walks, pickets and protests
  • Sand sculptures on beaches
  • YES stickers on traffic lights (not us, Roads Service, honest!)

By the end of the whirlwind campaign, we were helping the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) with its internal dissent challenge and uncertain voter support; also any cross-party efforts (we funded the SDLP/UUP Bono concert) and platforms in schools and community centres (e.g. with Ken Maginnis UUP MP and SF Cllr Barry McElduff with others in Omagh).

The outcome? 81% turnout, 71% YES, a demonstrable majority of unionism, albeit only just, giving a mandate for implementation.

By the 28th June first Assembly election, we had lost 104,000 referendum voters, who returned to abstentionism, apathy or a ‘a plague on both your houses’; the rest is a quarter century of history, as they say.

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