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 Header Item Children's Rights Referendum (Continued)
 Header Item Children's Rights Referendum

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 787 No. 3

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Deputy Robert Troy: Information on Robert Troy Zoom on Robert Troy In his verdict, Mr. Justice O'Donnell pointed out that some of the language used in this so-called independent literature was the same language used in the Minister's speech at the launch of the Fine Gael campaign for a "Yes" vote. As a Fine Gael parliamentarian the Minister was entitled, as I was as a Fianna Fáil parliamentarian, to advocate a "Yes" vote, but why was it the same language? If there was bona fides in terms of the wording used in the independent booklet, why did she use the same language in a Fine Gael document? My personal opinion is that this was a political stunt on the Minister's part.

Deputy Frances Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald It certainly was not. In fact, the highest court in the land disagrees with what the Deputy said and accepts the bona fides of myself and my Department in this regard. However, I accept that the Government, as the court has found, in attempting to fulfil its duty to inform the people strayed beyond the boundary in the provision of information to the electorate. I readily accept and acknowledge that we must examine and implement the lessons to be learned from the successful legal challenge to the Government's information campaign. The Government has said that it is carefully studying the Supreme Court judgment which clarifies, for the first time since 1995, how the Government can make information available to the electorate during a referendum. At the appropriate time there will be considerable debate on these matters in the House and I look forward to participating in that debate, when the constraints that apply today are no longer relevant.

Children's Rights Referendum

 61. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald the reason, despite the recorded concerns of the Referendum Commission chairman in the previous referendum (details supplied), the Government proceeded with the publication of a parallel information guide to that prepared and distributed by the Referendum Commission in the children's rights referendum, running the risk of confusion; and if she will make a statement on the matter.  [56971/12]

Deputy Frances Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald I wish to reiterate the need to be mindful of court proceedings with regard to the referendum result and the particular constraints which I face as a defendant in the High Court application at this stage. I should point out that the activities of the Referendum Commission in respect of the recent referendum were funded by way of an allocation of €1.9 million from the sum of €3 million provided in my Department’s Vote for a referendum on children’s rights. The balance of €1.1 million was used by my Department for the provision of information to the public relating to the referendum.

  It is important to be clear on the fact that the report of the Referendum Commission on the stability treaty did not call for a prohibition on the Government providing information to the public in respect of referendums. This is evident in the commission's recommendation to the effect that "where a Government Department or agency produces an information guide to a referendum proposal, its design and content should ensure that it is clearly distinguished from Referendum Commission material. Any such guide should contain full contact details". This was the approach taken to the design and production of the information booklet issued by my Department in the children's referendum.

  The approach adopted by the Government to the provision of information to the public in the recent referendum reflected information initiatives used previously on such occasions. As regards learning from past experience about potential confusion with the materials of the commission, specific efforts were made to avoid this happening. The Department’s main information tools were a booklet and a dedicated website. The print and limited broadcast advertising sought to draw attention to these sources of information and to call attention to the Saturday voting day. The booklet identified the Department on its cover and prominently displayed the Department’s contact details in the text; this was done twice in both the English and Irish language versions. At the conclusion of each website page, the Department’s name, logo, address and contact details were carried.

  Additional information not given on the floor of the House

  Comments or complaints about distinguishing between the Department’s information initiatives and those of the Referendum Commission were not a feature of the many verbal and written queries my Department received in the period before the referendum polling date.

  The Government aimed, through its information materials, to encourage the maximum public debate on, and participation in, the referendum. In doing so, it was conscious of an acknowledged gap in information that can attend referendums. Indeed, in the passage of the Thirty-first Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Bill 2012 through the House in late September, speakers on all sides identified as a particular challenge the need to engage the general public with the debate, to provide explanation and to encourage turnout to vote. In that context, the House was informed during the debate on 26 September that the Government was committed - as with the European stability referendum earlier this year - to ensuring that people had all the information they needed to make an informed decision on 10 November. It was further informed that to facilitate that situation, an information website, www.childrensreferendum.ie, had been set up by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs which provided information on the constitutional amendment as well as details of the wider reform programme under way in the area of child protection. It was also made known to the House on that occasion that a government information booklet would also be sent to each household in the country.

  A significant gap in the public’s information was indicated in opinion polls taken during the course of the referendum campaign. An Ipsos MRBI poll for the Irish Times of 20 October found that in response to the question, "How well do you feel you understand the issues in the children’s referendum?", 10% said they had a good understanding, 28% said they understood some but not all the issues, 37% said they were only vaguely aware of the issues involved and 24% said they did not know what the referendum was about at all. The Government considered that in preparing information materials it was paying appropriate regard to the McKenna principles. All the publications were issued with a view to informing the electorate about the referendum.

  The Supreme Court has found that the Government at all times acted in a bona fide manner.  As I said, the Government acted in good faith in the preparation of its information materials, which aimed to encourage the maximum public debate on, and participation in, the children’s referendum. The failures identified by the Supreme Court are fully acknowledged and greatly regretted. The Government is committed to working within the parameters of the judgment in the conduct of future referendums, and is carefully studying the conclusions of the court. It will have regard to the Supreme Court’s detailed judgments and the guidelines contained therein as part of its full consideration of the implications of the judgments.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin I do not doubt the Minister's intent, and that is clear from the question I tabled. My concern is that if we have not already done so, we must learn from the lessons of the past. Last August, Mr. Justice Kevin Feeney, the former chairman of the Referendum Commission for the fiscal or austerity treaty referendum, depending on one's point of view, cautioned against this approach on the basis that it could cause confusion. It was his experience as chairman of the Referendum Commission in that case that it perhaps had contributed to the creation of confusion.


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