The 1998 Referendums

The Good Friday Agreement was ratified in referendums both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic held on 22 May 1998. The wording of the question on the ballot paper was different in the two jurisdictions as follows:

Wording of referendum in Northern Ireland:

Do you support the Agreement reached at the multi-party talks on Northern Ireland and set out in Command Paper 3883?

Turnout 81.1%
Yes 676,966 (71.1%)
No 274,879 (28.9%)
(Invalid 1,738)

See spreadsheet archive.

Wording of referendum in the Republic:

British-Irish Agreement

Do you approve of the proposal to amend the Constitution contained in the undermentioned Bill?

Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 1998

Turnout 55.6%%
Yes 1,442,583 (94.4%)
No 85,748 (5.6%)
(Invalid 17,064)

Northern Ireland: details

See also the Yes campaign web-site: at (I contributed to the discussion page)

The votes in the referendum were tallied at a central location, so the result for each constituency is not known (though an exit poll found that only North Antrim had voted against). The turnout by constituency is however available, and contrasts interestingly with the other elections held around the same time:

Turnouts Ref'm May '98 Assbly June '98 difference Forum May '96 W'ster May '97
Mid Ulster 87% 85% 2% 76% 86%
West Tyrone 83% 79% 4% 71% 79%
Newry and Armagh 82% 77% 6% 70% 75%
Foyle 79% 72% 7% 68% 70%
Fermanagh S Tyrone 85% 78% 7% 76% 75%
West Belfast 76% 68% 8% 68% 74%
South Down 84% 74% 10% 68% 71%
North Antrim 80% 69% 11% 62% 64%
East Londonderry 80% 67% 12% 63% 65%
Upper Bann 83% 71% 13% 65% 68%
North Belfast 78% 64% 14% 62% 64%
South Belfast 80% 64% 16% 59% 62%
Lagan Valley 82% 65% 16% 62% 62%
South Antrim 80% 63% 17% 58% 58%
East Belfast 81% 64% 17% 62% 63%
East Antrim 79% 60% 19% 58% 58%
Strangford 80% 61% 19% 58% 59%
North Down 80% 59% 21% 58% 58%
The turnout for the Assembly is not very different from the turnout in the Forum elections two years before, or in the election for Westminster in 1997, though in most cases it was higher, so we can take that as a standard pattern of the electoral map. But the referendum turnout is something else. An 81% turnout is very high for a developed country where voting is not compulsory. What is even more striking is that the usual geographical spread of voting in Northern Ireland is almost completely flattened out. I have scoured electoral records and found no previous occasion since 1921 when the vote from the gentle hills and seaside resorts of North Down was anywhere near 80%. It is clear that the referendum somehow managed to pull out 147,000 people who otherwise make a habit of not voting.

Who are these people? Well, the data is rather meagre but I can make a few deductions. There is a noticeable anti-correlation with the size of the Nationalist vote. The more votes for SDLP and SF combined in June 1998, the closer the two turnout figures are to each other. So I think it's a fairly sure bet that most people who voted for the SDLP and Sinn Fein also voted in the referendum. If anything I suspect that some urban Sinn Fein voters boycotted the referendum but then turned out to vote for the Assembly - this is what the comparatively lower turnouts in Foyle and West Belfast indicate.

If all Nationalist voters in June also voted "yes" in May, that accounts for about a third of the total turnout in May, or just under half of those who voted yes. What about the rest? The drop in turnout between May and June is not particularly correlated with unemployment levels, which is the best economic indicator I could find broken down by constituency. It is not particularly linked with any one party, and when I tried splitting Unionists from center parties such as Alliance and the Women's Coalition, or dividing between pro and anti-Agreement parties, the correlation disappears into statistical noise. The single party whose performance best correlates with this vote gap is the Alliance Party, though not all that strongly.

This vote gap is important. The legitimacy of the Agreement is underpinned by the referendum results. These are rapidly receding into the past. The position of the "yes" camp within Unionism has been undermined by elections since then, ie the elections to the Assembly itself, which resulted in a fifty-fifty split in Unionism, the European election, which while not very different from previous occasions did appear to show a massive vote for Paisley as compared to the UUP candidate, Nicholson, the 2000 South Antrim by-election, won by the DUP in a miserable turnout, and ultimately the 2001 Westminster and local government elections. In Belgium, where I now live, voting is compulsory, but I am not necessarily recommending that as a solution.

Republic of Ireland: details:

Official web-site for referendum at; Irish Dept of Environment site at

The referendum was held on the same day as the referendum to ratify the Amsterdam Treaty, which upgraded the institutions of the European Union (though not very much). The turnout was about average for a constitutional referendum in the Republic. Only one proposed constitutional amendment has ever secured a higher vote in favour (a rather technical proposal on adoption in 1979). The breakdown of the vote by constituency was as follows:

- Yes No
Total 94.39 5.61
Cork East 96.34 3.66
Dun Laoghaire 95.8 4.2
Dublin South 95.75 4.25
Dublin North 95.72 4.28
Kildare North 95.44 4.56
Galway East 95.43 4.57
Dublin South-East 95.26 4.74
Mayo 94.95 5.05
Meath 94.92 5.08
Galway West 94.74 5.26
Carlow-Kilkenny 94.72 5.28
Dublin West 94.68 5.32
Dublin North-Central 94.54 5.46
Dublin North-East 94.54 5.46
Kildare South 94.41 5.59
Clare 94.4 5.6
Sligo-Leitrim 94.4 5.6
Limerick West 94.32 5.68
Longford-Roscommon 94.32 5.68
Waterford 94.28 5.72
Tipperary South 94.22 5.78
Limerick East 94.19 5.81
Westmeath 94.12 5.88
Wicklow 94.11 5.89
Cork South-West 94.1 5.9
Dublin South-West 94.02 5.98
Dublin Central 93.99 6.01
Louth 93.98 6.02
Laoighis-Offaly 93.97 6.03
Cork South-Central 93.95 6.05
Tipperary North 93.92 6.08
Cork North-West 93.87 6.13
Donegal South-West 93.87 6.13
Kerry South 93.82 6.18
Dublin North-West 93.78 6.22
Dublin South-Central 93.63 6.37
Cavan-Monaghan 93.59 6.41
Wexford 93.28 6.72
Donegal North-East 93.05 6.95
Cork North-Central 92.79 7.21
Kerry North 92.79 7.21

See also: Jim Riley's analysis of votes and seats in the 1998 Assembly election | The NI Executive

Other sites based at ARK: ORB (Online Research Bank) | CAIN (Conflict Archive on the INternet) | Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey

Your comments, please! Send an email to me at Nicholas Whyte, 14 January 2001; modified 17 February 2002

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