AG warned officials on referendum advocacy
Government officials working on the children’s referendum were warned at the beginning of the campaign by the Attorney General’s office that they could not engage in advocacy.
A meeting of officials from a range of Government departments at the beginning of the campaign was given a lengthy briefing by the Attorney General’s office about the implications of the McKenna and Coughlan judgments, The Irish Times has learned.
The Attorney General’s office was subsequently involved in a series of meetings during the course of the campaign at which advice was given to departmental officials about how to avoid breaching Supreme Court rulings on the conduct of referendums.
The Government information booklet on the children’s referendum circulated to all homes in the country was ultimately found by the Supreme Court to have breached the McKenna judgment.
The cover of the information booklet contained four bullet points with the messages: “Protecting children”; “Supporting families”; “Removing inequalities in adoption”; and “Recognising children in their own right”.
The message “Supporting families” appears to have been one of the things that prompted the Supreme Court to conclude that the booklet breached the rules on advocacy.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin yesterday accused the Government of scapegoating Attorney General Máire Whelan over the decision to publish the booklet. “I was surprised at the rapidity at which Government Ministers came out and dumped on the Attorney General and to isolate the Attorney General as if this was all her fault,” said Mr Martin.
Mr Martin said the Government had made a fundamental mistake in deciding to run its Yes campaign parallel to the Referendum Commission’s objective campaign. “The problem is you undermine the integrity and credibility of the Referendum Commission’s campaign of non-partisan information,” he added.
Mr Martin said the Government had clearly been annoyed with the commission’s information campaign during last year’s referendum to give the Oireachtas more power for inquiries, which was rejected by the people. This, he claimed, had prompted the Government to run a parallel campaign in the children’s rights referendum and in the European fiscal treaty vote, which was held in May.
Asked about Ms Whelan’s position, a Government spokesman said: “The Government has full confidence in the Attorney General.”