independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Supreme Court attacks Coalition for child referendum 'campaigning'

Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald was back in the spotlight after the Supreme Court severely criticised the Government over its €1.1m children's referendum information campaign.

In its detailed ruling on the controversial referendum campaign, the judges said the Government had "failed to hold the scales equally between both sides".

The Government was "in effect campaigning" by the use of certain phrases and questions such as why a referendum was needed.

The Coalition's behaviour will come under greater scrutiny today when a warning by a senior judge that its own private referendum information campaign caused confusion among voters will be published.

The judge's advice will place further pressure on ministers after they still went ahead with their information project, which cost €1.5m and was subsequently ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court's ruling also seems to exonerate Attorney General Maire Whelan from blame for the information campaign debacle.

Judge Nial Fennelly said it was notable that the account of a senior civil servant "at no point alleges that the website or the booklet was actually reviewed and approved by the Office of the Attorney General".

"The advice of that office, as very briefly summarised in the form of two brief sentences, seems correct and in accordance with the McKenna judgment."

Ms Fitzgerald still faces questions over who signed off on the campaign and demands to make an immediate statement.

Fianna Fail children's spokesman Robert Troy said the judgment was an indictment of an arrogant government.

"Minister Fitzgerald and the Government clearly thought that the rules don't apply to them – that they were above the Constitution at the same time as trying to amend it," he said.

The Department of Children did not directly respond to Mr Justice Fennelly's point, referring to a statement from the Government.

It said it is carefully studying the Supreme Court judgment, which "clarifies how the Government can make information available to the electorate during a referendum".

"The court found that the Government at all times acted in a bona fide manner, and all the publications were issued with a view to informing the electorate about the referendum.

"The Government is committed to working within the parameters of the judgment delivered today in the conduct of future referendums, and will carefully study the conclusions of the court."

The Supreme Court found the Government's publicly funded information campaign in the referendum was in "clear disregard" of the limits imposed by the Constitution.

It was not fair, equal, impartial or neutral and it clearly favoured passage of the referendum, the court found.

In judgments delivered yesterday outlining their decision last month upholding a challenge to the referendum, all five judges agreed with Dublin engineer Mark McCrystal that the Government's campaign breached the McKenna principles, set out by the Supreme Court in 1995, requiring that publicly funded information in a referendum be presented in a balanced way. The judgments are expected to be strongly relied upon in the forthcoming action by Dublin homemaker Joanna Jordan aimed at overturning the referendum result.

Ms Jordan, who campaigned for a No vote, claims the outcome of the poll was materially affected by the Government's "one-sided" information campaign.

Irish Independent

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