Groups getting public funding warned it would be ‘preferable’ to avoid giving referendums information

Voluntary organisations warned of ‘high test of neutrality’

Organisations in receipt of public funds were told by the Government it would be “preferable” if they avoided publishing material about the forthcoming family and care referendums.

Last month the Department of Community and Rural Development wrote to community and voluntary organisations in receipt of direct or indirect department funding warning them against spending public money in the campaign. The organisations were told that where a body or agency receiving public money is disseminating any information about a referendum it must “ensure such information is equal, fair, impartial and neutral”.

“However, since such information must meet a high test of neutrality it is preferable that bodies and agencies avoid publishing any information about the referendum unless it is unavoidable. The department cannot and will not act as an assessor or evaluator of any material about a referendum.”

The groups were told that the display or distribution of any literature relating to the proposed amendments, including brochures, badges, leaflets, newsletters, notices and posters in offices, should generally be avoided. “Where such literature is provided, the body must ensure such information is equal, fair, impartial and neutral. Websites and social media sites of publicly-funded bodies and agencies must not be used to promote or advocate a particular outcome.”


A spokeswoman for the department said on Tuesday that “bodies in receipt of funds from the department were reminded that they may not use those public funds to advocate for a particular outcome in a referendum. This is a long-standing and well understood principle, supported by court judgments. The notice was issued to all bodies in receipt of funding, including local authorities, agencies under our remit, and organisations in receipt of grant funding. It does not have any wider effect or restrict organisations in any other way.


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“Following a small number of queries from organisations a further notice issued to ensure there was no doubt that the notice referred only to the use of public funds and did not restrict organisations in any other way.”

The department provides funding to the members of the Community and Voluntary Pillar, which is a 17-member group representing community and voluntary organisations.

There has been increased focus on the spending of both the Yes and No sides ahead of Friday’s vote. The Yes-Yes side in the referendums on family and care has a combined war chest of at least €144,000, a level of funding that is vastly larger than the spending planned by prominent voices on the opposing side.

On Monday Minister for Equality Roderic O’Gorman said he was “absolutely confident” that rules prohibiting the spending of taxpayers’ money on referendum campaigns have not been breached.

There has been speculation that campaigners advocating for a No vote may be preparing a legal challenge to the outcome of the referendum if it is successful on the basis that the McKenna principles – which prevent the use of public funds to advocate for any side in a referendum – may have been breached.

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Campaigners on the No side have privately been questioning the role of campaigning organisations which receive funding from the State.

Separately, the Electoral Commission has said that posters erected on behalf of Independent Senator Sharon Keogan contain a “factual misrepresentation” about what is being proposed in this Friday’s referendums.

Ms Keoghan last week started an online fundraiser to print the posters, one of which urges people to vote No while stating: “Don’t force mothers out to work.” She has raised nearly €25,000 so far through a GoFundMe page.

Chairwoman of the Electoral Commission Ms Justice Marie Baker said there is nothing in either of the referendum proposals that would force women to either stay at home or go out to work. “An Coimisiún Toghcháin is clear that one of the posters which have been posted in a number of areas in Dublin and elsewhere under the imprint of Senator Sharon Keogan is an incorrect representation of what people are being asked to vote on this Friday.”

Ms Keogan said she stood by her posters.

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times