Monday 23 October 2017

Howlin denies attack on commission chairman

Michael Brennan and Dearbhail McDonald

PUBLIC Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin was involved in an embarrassing row with the Referendum Commission last night after he personally criticised its chairman.

The Referendum Commission insisted that its chairman, former High Court Judge Bryan McMahon, was right in comments he made about the referendum to give more investigative powers to Oireachtas committees -- and that Mr Howlin was wrong.

It was the latest example of the bitter fallout from the defeat of the government-backed referendum by 53.3pc to 46.7pc.

The row is even more embarrassing for the Government because it appointed Mr McMahon to chair the Referendum Commission -- and he agreed to come out of retirement to do the job for no fee.

The row between Mr Howlin and the Referendum Commission centres on whether people would be able to go to court if they were concerned about the fairness of an Oireachtas inquiry.

It emerged last night that a Labour Party TD -- barrister Alex White -- had written to Mr Howlin four weeks ago to warn him about this very issue.

He wrote to express his concerns that the wording left open a doubt as to whether affected individuals would have access to the courts.

As Referendum Commission chairman, Mr McMahon said it was not possible to state definitively what role "if any" the courts would have in reviewing the procedures adopted by Oireachtas inquiries.

But those comments annoyed Mr Howlin, who personally blamed Judge McMahon for spreading "confusion" among voters.

"The chairman of the Referendum Commission used, as far as I was concerned, the two words which caused confusion. And he genuinely believes it -- 'if any'. And that did certainly, I think, caused people to hesitate," he said.

Mr Howlin maintained that all the legal advice available to the Government -- including that of Attorney General Maire Whelan -- said people could go to the courts to seek a review of decisions taken by Oireachtas inquiries.

Last night, a spokeswoman for Mr Howlin insisted that he had not criticised Judge McMahon or the Referendum Commission.

"He simply indicated that the views of the commission differed from the advice received from the state's law officers, as articulated by the Government, and that the electorate found this aspect of the campaign confusing," he said.

The spokeswoman also said that Mr Howlin was aware that Judge McMahon was speaking for the entire Referendum Commission -- and that he only referred to him by name as "shorthand" for the entire commission.

Earlier, the Referendum Commission issued a statement saying Judge McMahon's comments were "accurate, reliable and independent".

It explained that Judge McMahon was only repeating the advice that had been agreed with all of the other members, who include Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly and the Comptroller and Auditor General John Buckley.

The commission said it had made its decision after getting independent external legal advice.

"The commission regrets that Mr Howlin has sought to personalise the issue by criticising the commission chairperson over the commission's explanation to voters of the referendum proposal in relation to Oireachtas inquiries," it said.

Mr Howlin is the second government minister to find himself at the centre of a row over the referendum. Justice Minister Alan Shatter was criticised after he dismissed the objections of eight former Attorneys-General as "nonsense".

Mr White warned Mr Howlin and other cabinet ministers four weeks ago to make it clear in the wording that individuals would have access to the courts.

Mr White, who supported the principle behind the referendum, is said to be "incandescent" that concerns raised by him and other colleagues were not taken on board.

Full referendum results and analysis: pages 38/39

Irish Independent

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