Howlin apologises for 'slight' to Referendum Commission


The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin today apologised to Referendum Commission chairman Bryan McMahon for comments he made at the weekend. 

Mr Howlin accused Mr McMahon of causing confusion among voters leading to the defeat of the constitutional amendment to give more power to the Oireachtas to conduct inquiries.

Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, Mr Howlin said he had been simply trying "in a cackhanded way to answer the question of what were the issues that led to a no vote."

"If he feels that in any way there was a slight I unreservedly give him an apology. I hope he’ll accept that it was never my intention to slight them [the Commission] in any way.

"We have to have an independent voice to weigh, parse and analyse complicated referendum matters and to give impartial advice and it wasn’t my intention and it isn’t my intention to indicate that they acted in any way other than with complete probity," he said.

Mr Howlin said the Government needed to reflect "with humility" on the decision of the electorate.

He said there was still "an appetite for reform" to bring about a "quicker and more effective way of getting to the truth in issues of public importance."

"But it’s clear to me we need to bring the people with us every step of the way and obviously we didn’t do it on this occasion," he said.

He attribued the defeat of the amendment to a "degree of mistrust that still exists between people and politicians."

"We thought the election had addressed that but great deal of scepticism remains about politicians. We need to address that and to restore full trust that we can do the people’s business in a proper way," he said.

The commission issued a reproach to the Coalition yesterday after Mr Howlin blamed Mr McMahon, a retired High Court judge, for causing confusion among voters.

A spokesman for the Government responded last night by saying that it recognised “the absolutely independent role of the Referendum Commission in the conduct of its duties and the crucial role it plays.”

Earlier a spokesman for Mr Howlin offered a far less conciliatory response saying the Minister had “merely referred to the chairman as shorthand for the views of the commission” as others had done during the campaign.

“He is aware that the chairman spoke on behalf of his colleagues. Nor did the Minister express criticism of the 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.”

Over the weekend Mr Howlin blamed the commission chairman for causing confusion among voters.

In an unprecedented response yesterday the commission said the Minister’s complaint referred to a statement made by it as a whole and not simply comments by the chairman.

The other members of the Commission are: Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly; Comptroller and Auditor General John Buckley; Clerk of the Dáil Kieran Coughlan; and Clerk of the Seanad Deirdre Lane.

“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 was critical of Mr McMahon’s view that it was “not possible to state definitively what role, if any, the courts would have in reviewing the procedures adopted” by the Oireachtas if the referendum passed. “The commission is absolutely satisfied as to the accuracy and reliability of this statement and is satisfied that it carried out its duty with the independence and neutrality required by law,” it noted.

Fianna Fáil spokesman on Public Expenditure and Reform Seán Fleming condemned “the arrogant approach of Alan Shatter and Brendan Howlin” to the referendum process for dismissing concerns and attacking those who raised them.

“I am calling on the Taoiseach to state publicly whether or not he supports this unprecedented attack on the independent Referendum Commission. Brendan Howlin should withdraw his remarks immediately and apologise to the Commission and its chair,” said Mr Fleming.

The statement came as Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore indicated that the constitutional convention planned for next year may revisit the proposal.

He said the Government would have to reflect on why the referendum was defeated, by 53.3 per cent to 46.7 per cent. Government sources insisted the appetite for constitutional reform had not been damaged.

“Both parties of Government campaigned in the general election on the issue of political reform and it will continue to be a cornerstone of our policy,” said one senior figure.

He pointed to the list of constitutional reform proposals in the programme for government, including abolition of the Seanad, children’s rights, a whistleblower’s charter and the reduction in the voting age to 17.

Independent TD Catherine Murphy, one of the leaders of the vote No campaign, welcomed the result.

“It now seems clear the decision to rush the legislation through the Dáil in September, in order that the referendum could be held on the same day as the presidential election, was ill-judged. The response by some Government Ministers to those who advocated a No vote was dismissive and seems to have had the effect of reinforcing doubt,”she said.

While she favoured the principle of parliamentary inquiries, these must be balanced with the protection of individual rights.

“The wording of the amendment, which has now been rejected, did not achieve that balance and it has rightly been rejected for that reason.”