Voters urged not to punish Coalition


Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar has said the Government accepts responsibility for the Supreme Court finding that it's referendum information campaign was "not fair, equal or impartial" but appealed to voters not to "punish" it by voting No tomorrow.

Yesterday's judgment, which was unexpected, was seen as a significant setback to the Yes campaign, coming only 48 hours ahead of polling.

Mr Varadkar said the Government accepted the ruling and would examine the full reasoned judgment when it was delivered next month to consider “what mistakes were made”.

“The judgment relates solely to the Government’s information campaign – it doesn’t relate to the Yes campaign,” Mr Varadkar said of yesterday’s ruling.

"The referendum will go ahead tomorrow. The Supreme Court had the opportunity to injuct it and they decided not to.”

“All of the good reasons for voting Yes stand,” he insisted.

Mr Varadkar said the Government had not considered postponing the referendum and cited the Supreme Court decision which said it did not consider it "appropriate or necessary" to grant an injunction.

"This amendment is 20 years overdue, there are children in long-term foster care relying on us to vote Yes, there are also thousands of people who are victims of abuse who's voices aren't being heard, who's interests aren't paramount and don't blame them for a mistake made by the Government," Mr Varadkar said.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Mr Varadkar said the “Government is collectively responsible and if we’ve made a mistake, we accept that, but don’t take it out on the children,” he said.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin today accused the Government of displaying arrogance and inexperience in its approach to the children’s referendum

“I’m very, very disappointed. The Government was probably too arrogant in terms of its approach and didn’t read the signs well in my view.”

Solicitor Malachy Steenson said the court's judgment had created a constitutional crisis.

"We have moved from being a democracy to being a dictatorship because what role now does the Supreme Court have if the Government - having being found to have breached the law, to act unconstitutionally - two days before a referendum, when it was quite clear right throughout this campaign that what the Government was doing was in breach of [the] McKenna [judgment].

In a decision that was portrayed by the Opposition and No campaigners as an acute political embarrassment for the Government, the five-judge division of the court ruled yesterday it had “acted wrongfully” in spending €1.1 million of public money on a booklet that breached the McKenna judgment, which held public money should not be spent to espouse a particular side in a referendum campaign.

Voting on a number of islands off the west coast had already commenced ahead of yesterday's court decision.

In its 500-word ruling the Supreme Court said “extensive passages in the booklet and on the website” did not conform to the McKenna principles.

The court also pointed to the Department of Children’s own admission there was an error or “mis-statement” in the booklet and website.

Yesterday, the solicitor for Mark McCrystal, the Dublin engineer who took the challenge, said the ruling was unanimous and criticised the Department of Children for its delay in correcting the error on its website.

Colm MacGeehin said the department was aware of the error on October 31st but did not correct its website until November 7th, on the second day of the Supreme Court hearing.

The department acknowledged the delay yesterday. A spokeswoman also confirmed that the booklet and website had been thoroughly examined for compliance with the McKenna judgment since August by its internal legal advisers and also by the office of Attorney General Máire Whelan.

Five Independent TDs called for the referendum to be deferred after the ruling. One, Shane Ross, said it was too late to correct the imbalance and called for emergency legislation to pass through the Dáil today. “Put it off for three months and have a fair referendum in fair circumstances,” he said.

However, Government sources said that under the Referendum Act 1994, the only way in which the poll could be deferred was if a general election was called.

Polling stations for those entitled to vote in the referendum will be open across the State from 9am to 10pm tomorrow. Counting of ballots will begin at 9am on Sunday.

At a last-minute canvassing event in the city centre this morning, Mr Varadkar urged voters to go out and cast their ballot tomorrow.

“Decisions are made by those who turn up. If there is a low turnout it means every vote is worth even more,” he said.

Commuters coming off the Luas at Stephen’s Green were hurrying to get to work in the rain, and few people acknowledged the Minister’s presence as he distributed leaflets calling for a Yes vote with members of Young Fine Gael.

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald defended the Government’s decision to run a separate information campaign to that of the Referendum Commission, saying that people in the past had criticised the Government for not supplying enough information.

Fianna Fáil’s spokesman on children Robert Troy said the Government’s “failure to ensure fairness and impartiality” was “frustrating and disappointing” but this should not distract from the “core issues”.

Prominent No campaigner, columnist John Waters, accused the Government of “effectively misappropriating” public funds to produce “propaganda” on the referendum.

In a final statement this evening, the Referendum Commission urged people to vote on the amendment tomorrow.

Commission chairwoman Ms Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan said that any proposal to amend the constitution “is left entirely to the people to decide”.

“Every voter should take the opportunity to make their voice heard. We are privileged to live in a democracy with a written constitution which we the people own,” she said.

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