Sharp divisions have arisen between the Government and Opposition over the attendance of eight Government TDs and Senators at Punchestown Races last month as guests of the Irish Bookmakers Association.
The main Opposition party, Sinn Féin, said their attendance was “deeply concerning” and suggested a dysfunctional relationship between the gambling industry and politicians responsible for regulating that industry.
“I am concerned that this represents a conflict of interest,” said the party’s spokesman on addiction, Thomas Gould.
However, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said he did not see anything wrong with their attendance. “No rules were broken nor any ethical guidelines breached.”
The attendance of the TDs and Senators at the races at Punchestown on April 28th was reported by the Daily Mail on Thursday, which said among those attending were Leader of the Seanad Regina Doherty; former minister Paul Kehoe; Clare TD Joe Carey, Senators Martin Conway, John Cummins and Gareth Ahearn (all Fine Gael); Tipperary TD Jackie Cahill; and Senator Paul Daly (Fianna Fáil).
The Irish Times made contact with several of the named parliamentarians on Thursday but was told that all had taken a collective decision not to respond to or comment about the matter.
The politicians had been invited to the corporate hospitality area of the races on that day and were treated to a meal and free drinks, as well as free admittance to the racing.
Privately, some of those present expressed annoyance at the coverage, saying it could not be construed as a conflict of interest. “We were not lobbied. Next they will be telling TDs and Ministers they can’t accept tickets to the All-Ireland final because the GAA lobbies the Government from time to time,” said one.
Sinn Féin focused most of its criticism on the proximity of the races to the long-awaited publication of new gambling legislation, which will establish a gambling regulator in Ireland for the first time.
A senior figure in the party said that getting free tickets and hospitality was a grey area when there was no lobbying involved and politicians really needed to exercise their judgment and discretion.
“In my view they exercised poor judgment in going to the races given the timing of it, with the debate ongoing on the gambling legislation,” the Sinn Féin figure said.
Mr Varadkar responded with detailed comments setting out why he thought the politicians had not overstepped any mark.
“I certainly don’t see anything wrong with people attending Punchestown. Obviously, if any lobbying occurred at the event, that has to be declared under the lobbying act and I am sure it will be.
“From what I can see, no rules were broken nor any ethical guidelines breached, and I think it is important to say that.”
He said the Government was pressing ahead with its plans to restrict advertising in relation to gambling and to bring in a gambling regulator.
“We are not going to ban gambling — I think that would be over the top — but we are going to regulate it better.”
He added: “I don’t think the fact that an industry is going to be regulated means you can’t engage with them or necessarily accept hospitality from them.”
Sharon Byrne of the Irish Bookmakers Association said it invited guests from various backgrounds, including politicians “who are local to where the event is being held as well as those with a known interest in the sport”.
She added: “The IBA operates at all times in full compliance with the Lobbying Register requirements and there was no requirement to make a return to the register.”