Referendum Commission 'will be more active second time round'


Chairman Mr Justice Frank Clarke tells Legal Affairs Editor CAROL COULTERhow he sees the commission’s role

WE CAN expect to hear a lot more from the Referendum Commission about the contents of the Lisbon Treaty in the coming weeks, according to its chairman, Mr Justice Frank Clarke, but he stressed that this will be restricted to issues of fact rather than interpretation.

Already it has commissioned a number of radio and television advertisements to give people a quick idea of what the treaty is about, while directing them to the further information provided by the commission.

These advertisements differ from those of the previous commission in that they deal with the content of the treaty, rather than just urging people to inform themselves and vote.

He said the commission was starting from a higher level of knowledge this time, and it was also aware that a reason people gave for not voting the last time (though the poll, at 53 per cent, was high for a stand-alone referendum) was that they did not understand the treaty.

“We made a conscious decision to make content ads, even though we understood their limitations,” he told The Irish Times. “It is a difficult job to write scripts for ads that are accurate but short.”

The other arm of its activities is intervening in the debate where this is necessary to correct statements of fact that are wrong. Will this not open the commission to the charge that it lacks objectivity? “We have a statutory obligation to inform the public,” Judge Clarke said. “We will be careful on what we intervene in and how we intervene.”

There are some issues they cannot give an opinion on, for example, he said, those pursued in the recent debate between Joe Higgins and Pat Cox on aspects of workers’ rights and the impact of some EU court rulings. “We are not in a position to give a definitive view on them. If there is information there that will help people to make up their own minds we will direct them to it.”

He gives as an example of the kind of issues they can clarify the suggestion that the Lisbon Treaty would lead to the reduction of the minimum wage.

“We can say three things here. First, there is no competence in the EU in relation to the minimum wage anywhere.

Second, there are a series of European cases which raise questions over the full extent to which all workers’ entitlements may apply in the case of foreign workers posted to Ireland, such as, for example, industrial action to secure rates of pay above legally enforceable minimum rates. They were decided under the existing treaties.

“Thirdly, what will Lisbon do about that? Will it change it? That is a matter of opinion and the Referendum Commission can’t have an opinion on it.”

He feels there is some confusion in the debate between the Lisbon Treaty and other treaties already in place. “There are a series of issues, of which that is one, where what people are unhappy about is the existing state of the EU. Voting No to Lisbon will not in itself fix that. That raises a purely political question as to whether a renegotiation of the treaty is politically feasible that would address those concerns. We cannot express a view on that.”

Judge Clarke will be on Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio tomorrow and each Friday to deal with issues that have arisen.

He acknowledged that they may be accused of partiality if they correct statements made by the No side, as they have done so far, but points out that the statements from the Yes side have been of a more vague and general nature, and do not touch on the contents of the treaty.