Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

We were betrayed, and children will go on suffering despite referendum result

The Government did not act "in good faith" in its information campaign in the Children Referendum, as Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Children, has claimed in the wake of the Supreme Court judgment. She also claimed, in an article in this newspaper replying to one written by me, that: "Mr Arnold makes a range of statements which act to distort the purpose of this referendum and the legal impact it will have on protecting children and supporting families."

In particular, she referred to my having made false statements -- "continuing to repeat false and misleading statements over and over again does not make them true".

She needs to reflect on her and the Government's wrongful attempts to intrude with state power into the people's constitutional rights, and to use public money to influence the people improperly.

Furthermore, the Government did not make "some mistakes", as Leo Varadkar, Fine Gael's director of elections for the referendum, has said. It did much more than that. And when Eamon Gilmore said that the judgment "did not change the arguments that are in favour of the referendum", he was wrong. It deliberately sought to distort them, exposing the Government's lack of confidence and its wrong-doing based on that.

The Government acted with deliberation and knowledge in corrupting what should have been the official, unbiased and exclusive advice of the Referendum Commission in giving to the people of Ireland guidance over the meaning of the Children referendum.

The commission was already reduced in its function by the devious and dishonest Fianna Fail removal from legislation, in 2001, of an obligation to give both the Yes and No views on whatever issue was being put before the people. The present government parties opposed that. The Taoiseach and 10 of his ministers, when in opposition, did so vehemently and with conviction. They sought then to preserve balance and fairness.

They have now, in their campaign, reversed all this, colluding in a further corruption of this important safeguard mechanism, and none of the excuses they offer has any validity. They sought deliberately to introduce their own biased views, were challenged, prevented and shamed. Any pretence otherwise has no credibility.

Eleven members of the current Government were in the Dail on the last sitting day in December 2001 when the Fianna Fail party in power forced through an amendment that removed from the 1998 Referendum Act the Referendum Commission's function of giving equal information on the Yes and No side in any referendum campaign.

Those 11 deputies fought hard to stop the devious and dishonest way in which Fianna Fail were removing a key part of referendum law. On that day, one day's notice was given to the opposition. They had no time to draw attention to what was happening. All stages of the amendment were put through the Dail and Seanad in that one day. There is a certain irony in Fianna Fail's spokesman on children, Robert Troy, criticising the Government's "failure to ensure fairness and impartiality". But then, Mr Troy was not around 10 years ago when his party did just that.

Instead of restoring, in power, what they had fought for in opposition, the Government did the opposite by attempting to second-guess and manipulate through what was found by the Supreme Court to be an illegal website, booklet and advertising campaign, wrongly emphasising Yes information on which people would depend to make their decision on the Children Referendum. My taxes and everyone else's paid for this betrayal.

The Government sought to nullify, as far as it could, an important constitutional protection and it was found out and stopped by the Supreme Court. Any pretence that it was a lesser kind of intrusion based on a misunderstanding or a mistake made by all 15 members of the Cabinet is a piece of idiotic semantics made worse by the Department of Children's own admission that there was an error or "mis-statement" in the booklet and website.

Nor did the department respond immediately, and was criticised by Mark McCrystal, the Dublin engineer who took the challenge, for its delay in correcting the error on its website. The department was aware of the error on October 31, but did not correct its website until November 7, on the second day of the Supreme Court hearing, when it acknowledged the delay and revealed that the booklet and website had been thoroughly examined for compliance with the McKenna judgment since August by its own legal advisers and by the office of the Attorney General.

For us to believe the Leo Varadkar-Frances Fitzgerald-Eamon Gilmore-Enda Kenny versions of what happened is to believe in a collective amnesia when it was all deliberate. The whole Cabinet was suffering political forgetfulness with not a whisper of doubt or restraint. Blaming it on the Attorney General would be a further act of denial. The very least that should now be done is for Fine Gael and Labour to rectify the attempts to undermine the Referendum Act by restoring all of the lost or abused powers of the original Referendum Commission.

The Government responded to the Supreme Court judgment by engaging in spin, attempting to augment the argument of "an honest mistake" which is fatuous, separating its gross error from the main thrust of the constitutional amendment. The Government will not rectify. It will sweep it under the carpet and not revert to it again, thus damaging what is left of future trust.

A modest number of voters have spoken, leaving an uncertain and flawed result to an amendment that a senior former judge has said will make no difference. I do not quite concur in that. I think differences will follow, harmful and confused, and children in the State will go on suffering. That has been their lot for most of the past century.