ATTEMPTS by Brendan Howlin to shift the blame for the defeat of the Oireachtas inquiries referendum have backfired after he became embroiled in a row with the independent Referendum Commission.
The Public Expenditure and Reform Minister was forced to backtrack on criticism of the commission’s chairman, retired High Court judge Bryan McMahon, after Mr Howlin was acc-used of “personalising” the issue.
Mr Howlin has now said he only commented on Dr McMahon’s performance as “shorthand for the views of the commission” as a whole.
A statement on behalf of Mr Howlin said he did not consider his comment, that the commission’s interpretation of the proposed amendment caused confusion, was criticism.
“[Mr Howlin] simply indicated that the views of the commission differed from the advice received from the state’s law officers, as articulated by the Government, and that the electorate found this aspect of the campaign confusing,” he said.
However, the commission said it regretted the comments and was “satisfied that it carried out its duty with the independence and neutrality required by law”.
In an unorthodox statement, its high-ranking members piled extra embarrassment on Mr Howlin after the referendum was defeated, with 53.3% voting against it.
In a bid to end the row, the Government released a statement in which it reaffirmed “the absolute independence of the Referendum Commission”.
The controversy erupted as Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore refused to rule out a second referendum on the issue, saying it would be “revisited”.
The Labour leader said there would not be an inquiry into the banking crisis because another referendum would not take place in the near future. But he did not rule out holding another vote on Oireachtas inquiries.
He told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics the Government would “think through now what were the reasons why the referendum was defeated, and at some point a decision will have to be made as to whether we revisit this issue”.
Mr Howlin’s criticism related to remarks by Dr McMahon last week. Referring to whether recourse to the courts would be possible if such inquiries went ahead, he said: “It’s not possible to state definitively what role, if any, the courts would have in reviewing procedures if adopted.”
In a statement last night, the commission stood over what was said about the role of courts.
It said this was not the view of Dr McMahon but the Referendum Commission as a whole “in fulfilment of its statutory role of giving a general explanation of referendum proposals”.
The statement said the chairman “gave a number of media interviews which were based entirely on the commission’s agreed view” with the help of independent legal advice.
Fianna Fáil spokesman Sean Fleming called on Mr Howlin to withdraw his remarks.
Mr Howlin also came under a veiled attack from Labour colleague Joan Burton, who told the Sunday Independent the issues were not properly discussed in a “bad-tempered argument” on Prime Time between Mr Howlin and former attorney general Michael McDowell.
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