Public money and Ahern's briefing note on Nice 2 referendum planning

In light of the Supreme Court decision surrounding information provided by the Department of Children to people via a website and a booklet funded by the taxpayer. “Public funding should not be used in a referendum to espouse a particular point of view” the judges noted. The Supreme Court said “extensive passages in the booklet and on the website” did not conform to the McKenna principles.

But is this the first time? We all remember booklets and websites used in other referendum campaigns, particularly Lisbon 2, when the Department of Foreign Affairs released white papers and booklets, sent to every house in the country using public money.

Cast your mind back to 2002. The second Nice referendum is being proposed and then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern attended a Cabinet meeting on July 10. With him were his briefing papers for the meeting, details of which were released to me by the Department of the Taoiseach through FOI, under the 10 year rule. In the context of the Supreme Court judgment and of how public money is spent this is very interesting:

The most interesting bit:

The M/FA intends to launch the White Paper as soon as possible. The current intention is to circulate the summary Information Guide to households in early September, possibly to coincide with the Oireachtas Debate on the Referendum Bill. A circulation in advance of this date would likely not achieve the desired impact. There appears to be no reason, however, why the Information Guide could not be placed on the ‘Nice Treaty’ page of the Department of Foreign Affairs website in advance of the general circulation in September.

What exactly is the “desired impact”? A ‘Yes’ vote one would assume. But is this not circumventing the McKenna principles? This was done on top of, and in addition to any work by the Referendum Commission, which was established just the day before.

So the Government was tactically sending an Information Guide to households at a certain time for maximum impact, and was planning that just the day after the Referendum Commission for Nice 2 was established. Could it be said that this type of booklet was also a case of public money being used to espouse a particular point of view?

One thought on “Public money and Ahern's briefing note on Nice 2 referendum planning”

  1. Gavin, I suspect it’s all about timing, and the letter rather than the spirit of the law. Perhaps it is the case that the Government has some wriggle room in the letter of the law where information is circulated before a referendum date is set, or the respective referendum commission is established? Totally against the spirit of the McKenna Judgment, however.

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