Academic says ‘one-sided’ Government booklet likely to have influenced referendum outcome

Professor says Shatter’s reaction to Supreme Court decision amounted to the Minister ‘discounting’ court’s decision

A British professor of government has told the High Court he believes information provided unlawfully by the Irish Government to citizens in the Children’s Referendum was “very likely” to have influenced voters.

Prof Paul Whitely also said he believed Minister for Justice Alan Shatter's reaction to the Supreme Court's ruling on the Government's publicly funded "one-sided" information campaign was unlawful and amounted to the Minister "discounting" the court's decision as "technical" and "not mattering very much".

The Government's refusal to defer the referendum in light of the Supreme Court ruling, given in the case by Dublin engineer Mark McCrystal two days before the November 10th, 2012, referendum, would have added to voter confusion, he believed.

Booklet went to every home
A determination of the full extent of the influence of the Government's information material on voters would require a survey of the Irish electorate and there was no such survey, he said. However, based on studies by himself and others of referendums in various countries and voter behaviour, he considered it was very likely to have influenced the vote.


He was giving evidence in proceedings by Joanna Jordan, a mother of five, St Kevin's Villas, Glenageary Road Upper, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, seeking to overturn the referendum result. The amendment was passed by a majority of 58 to 41 per cent based on a 33.49 per cent turnout.

Yesterday, Prof Whitely, professor of government at the University of Essex, who has published extensively on elections, political participation, public opinion and survey methodology, said he understood the Government’s referendum information booklet was distributed to every home in the country.

An important implication from a study of the 2011 referendum in Britain to change the electoral system there was that information from a “trusted source” can play a major role in influencing the outcome. From his research on the British referendum, he concluded the information provided by the Irish Government was very likely to have influenced voters in the Children’s Referendum.

Studies also showed the Irish people trusted their courts more than their politicians, he said. He considered, had the people been given more time to absorb the Supreme Court November 8th finding, that could have affected the referendum outcome.

Wall to wall coverage
The ruling was however given two days before the referendum and he considered that insufficient time to absorb its content as studies showed it took up to seven days for people to absorb such information.

Michael Collins SC, for the Government, provided a series of media articles to Prof Whitely and also played radio and television interviews on the issue. These indicated “wall-to-wall coverage” of the ruling and people could have been left in no doubt about the nature of the court’s decision, counsel said.

Prof Whitely said that did not mean all those who voted were aware of, or had absorbed, the content of the Supreme Court decision and the media coverage or a behaviour and attitudes survey also did not indicate what they took from it. The fact the court’s full reasons for its decision were not available until after the referendum was also a factor, he said.

He agreed most people would be aware the Government supported a Yes vote and also agreed all of the Dáil parties, and many charities and non-governmental organisations, supported a Yes vote.

The hearing continues today before Mr Justice Paul McDermott.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times