Ethics watchdog had ‘no role’ to query State-funded NGO referendum spending

Lack of independent scrutiny raises questions about spending of public money in family and care referendums

New questions have been raised about the referendum campaigns of State-funded interest groups, after the public ethics watchdog said it had “no role” to examine their spending.

The No side in the family and care referendums accused Ministers of using interest groups to fight a proxy Yes case for constitutional change. The proposals were emphatically defeated last Friday.

The referendum amendments sought to widen the definition of family beyond those based on marriage and also sought to replace language around a woman’s life in the home with a provision recognising care within families.

Yes campaigners, funded to the tune of millions of euro by the Government, insisted there was no breach of the ban on spending public money in referendums. But No campaigners Senator Michael McDowell and Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín said the lack of independent scrutiny raised questions about the McKenna ruling of the Supreme Court, which bans the spending of public money.


The gap emerged when the Standards in Public Office Commission and the new Electoral Commission said they had no power to examine whether non-government organisations (NGOs) comply with the Supreme Court ruling.

The ethics watchdog said: “While the Standards in Public Office Commission has a role under the Electoral Act 1997 in regard to third parties receiving donations for political purposes, including for a referendum campaign, it has no role concerning the expenditure of public monies by non-governmental organisations in the circumstances to which you refer.”

Mr McDowell said there were “very serious issues” to be examined: “The McKenna principles would mean nothing if the Government can heavily subsidise campaigning bodies to act as referendum proxies.”

Mr Tóibín called for new oversight by the watchdog, saying the influence of Government money in referendum campaigns “must be within the scrutiny of Sipo”.

The National Women’s Council, whose Yes campaign was backed by 29 interest groups and trade unions, said it fully complied with “the legislation and regulations governing expenditure in referendums” and had a proven track record in previous votes.

A spokesperson for Minister for Equality Roderic O’Gorman said he “believes that NGOs play an important role in holding Government to account on a range of issues, and indeed are regularly critical of Government”.

The spokesperson added: “All NGOs were fully entitled to make their own decisions as to the positions they took on the proposed Constitutional amendments.”

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley is Current Affairs Editor of The Irish Times