Tanaiste(Deputy Prime Minister) Eamon Gilmore has claimed the public’s rejection of a government move to give national politicians wide-ranging powers to investigate ordinary citizens could frustrate any plans to probe bank chiefs who caused the economic crisis.
At the same time as people were voting on the presidency they were also polling on a constitutional change to give more power for inquiries to the Oireachtas (the houses of Parliament).
More than 928,170 people voted no to the proposal, defeating it by more than 100,000 votes. Critics said the public voted no because they were uncertain if they could lodge appeals in court to politicians’ findings. They also accused the government of arrogance.
As a dispute flared between the government and the independent Referendum Commission, which had the duty of explaining to the public what they were voting for, Gilmore complained about the threat to bank investigations.
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He indicated that people like former Anglo-Irish Bank chairman Sean Fitzpatrick, who brought the economy to its knees, could not now be investigated by politicians.
He complained, “I think the immediate probable consequence of it is that it will not be possible now to go ahead with the kind of inquiry in banking that we had hoped to be able to have.”
The dispute by ministers, shattered by the failure to win more investigative powers for politicians, was underlined when Brendan Howlin, the minister charged with winning agreement for the referendum, seemed to blame the Referendum Commission and its chairman, retired High Court Judge Bryan McMahon.
Howlin said McMahon caused confusion among the public with the inclusion of the words “if any” when he was explaining what the referendum was about.
McMahon said in an explanatory statement in advance of the vote that it was “not possible to state definitively what role, if any, the courts would have in reviewing the procedures adopted” by the Oireachtas if the referendum was passed.
The commission said it was satisfied that it carried out its duty with the independence and neutrality required by law.
Later, Howlin apologized for what he called “cack-handed” criticism of Judge McMahon’s role advising the public on the failed referendum.
But Howlin added that ambitious government plans for up to 10 referenda may have to be delayed. These included proposals on abolition of the senate and same-sex marriage.
The referendum had the support of all political parties, and the public rejection was an indicator that people weren’t prepared to trust politicians to carry out investigations without private citizens being certain they would have access to appeals procedures in court.
Fianna Fail opposition leader Micheal Martin blamed the government for not getting the referendum passed.
“The arrogance of the government was incredible. When eight former attorneys general come out and say there’s something wrong with this referendum then we should all pause for reflection,” he said.
In a separate referendum, also voted on the same day, there was a landslide yes vote of almost 80% that judges’ salaries be cut by almost 20%.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter said, “This proposal was fundamentally about fairness and ensuring that our judiciary were not perceived as immune from the financial difficulties affecting the state.”