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Oireachtas Golf Society told not to use state harp emblem as its logo

A government department had fears that the state could suffer reputational damage.

THE OIREACHTAS GOLF Society has told a government department that it will not stop using an image of a harp as its logo despite receiving a warning about the unauthorised use of state emblems.

The harp symbol is a protected trademark under domestic and international law, and may only be used by private entities with the consent of the minister for enterprise, trade and employment.

The Department of Enterprise received a complaint about the society’s use of the emblem after it appeared on table plans and other signage at the controversial ‘Golfgate’ event that took place in Clifden, Co Galway in August 2020.

It claimed that the use of the harp was likely to create a “false perception” that the society was connected to the state or its institutions, and that there was a risk of reputational damage arising from the controversy.

The department subsequently wrote to Donie Cassidy, who was the president of the society at the time of the ‘Golfgate’ event, stating that ministerial consent was required for non-governmental entities to use the harp emblem.

It noted that no such consent appeared to have been granted to the society, and invited Cassidy to supply proof of any consent the organisation may have received for the use of the trademark.

However, the former TD and senator sought legal advice on the matter and replied to the correspondence yesterday, contending that the law relating to the protection of state symbols does not apply to the Oireachtas Golf Society.

He referred to the relevant section of the Trade Marks Act 1996, which governs the use of emblems without ministerial consent “in the course of any business” in the state.

“The Oireachtas Golf Society is not a business and does not carry on any business, trade or profession within the meaning of the 1996 Act, as your minister is probably well aware,” he wrote to an official in the department.

“Accordingly, I am advised that the section and the minister’s functions thereunder have no application whatever to the society or to its correspondence letterhead [which features a harp],” Cassidy added.

“In short, none of the provisions of the Act have any application to the use by the society of the Brian Ború harp in its letterhead, which I am advised is entirely lawful, and of long standing, and done with the knowledge of successive ministers in your department.”

The department has yet to respond to the correspondence. However, an internal briefing document on the matter obtained under freedom of information laws sets out the official position regarding the interpretation of “business” in relation to the legislation.

It notes that the department’s intellectual property unit “takes the widest possible view” that “business” means “any activity” for which state emblems can be used, and cites a previous example of a non-commercial entity that was asked to stop using a national symbol.

The document also mentions the possibility of civil or criminal proceedings if a “cease and desist” approach does not result in a positive response.

Cassidy, who is now the secretary of the Oireachtas Golf Society, also expressed concern that the department’s letter could “infer a belief” that the organisation may have acted unlawfully by using the emblem.

“I would appreciate confirmation by return that no such inference is or was warranted,” he wrote.

Internal correspondence in which department officials discussed the issue in the months following the ‘Golfgate’ controversy noted that the emblem used by the society was “identical” to the image of a harp used by various government entities.

It suggested “taking further action” if the golf society continues to use the state emblem, noting that it had not been formally established by the Houses of the Oireachtas, and the logo “could give the impression that there is some connection with the state”.

Darragh McDonagh
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