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Your Country Your Call denies breaking political lobbying laws

The competition says it does not need to register as a lobby group, and confirms a government contribution of €300,000.

Martin McAleese is credited with conceiving the Your Country, Your Call competition, though he is neither on the board of directors nor the steering committee.
Martin McAleese is credited with conceiving the Your Country, Your Call competition, though he is neither on the board of directors nor the steering committee.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Archive

THE COMPANY behind the Your Country Your Call competition – the winners of which are announced tonight – has denied allegations it is in breach of the Standards in Public Office (SIPO) Commission’s rules on donations to political lobby groups.

A spokesman for An Smaoineamh Mór Ltd, the company formally running the competition, told TheJournal.ie that whether “legislative, administrative or procedural change” would be required in order for the competition’s winners to implement their ideas would be examined once the winning entries had been announced – and that the company itself would not be engaging in any such lobbying.

The competition’s website said that seeking such changes would “be part of the task of the implementation phase of the competition.”

The competition offers each of the two winning projects a €500,000 development fund, part of which would be used to seek such changes, as well as €100,000 to the person or persons who suggested the winning ideas.

Spokesman Padraig McKeon said that An Smaoineamh Mór (ASM) “didn’t set out with any particular objective in mind, other than running the competition involved. We will not be lobbying anybody.

“The function of An Smaoineamh Mór is first of all to run a competition, and secondly to facilitate the evaluation of material to that competition,” he said.

If someone in business “needed a change in legislation [...] and you go and you make your case to the minister,” he said, “I don’t think I have to register as a political party to go and do it.”

Department funding

ASM was incorporated with the Companies Registration Office in December, but has to date not registered with SIPO as a ‘third party’ lobbying body, as it is required to do under the Electoral (Amendment) Act of 2001 if engaging in political lobbying.

McKeon confirmed that the company had been funded to the tune of about €1.6m on the basis of donations received by 12 parties, which were mostly limited companies, though private individuals were among them.

ASM had chosen to limit the amount it received from any one donor to a maximum of €150,000, he said, in order to avoid having a fund “where any one body dominated” but one that “remained neutral of any commercial influence”.

The company is also awaiting a €300,000 contribution from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, pledged to it by Minister Mary Coughlan before she was transferred to the Department of Education and Skills, which ASM had not yet pursued as it was not immediately required.

“In order to ensure that there was there was seriousness on the mind of the government,” McKeon explained, ASM had decided “it would be important to seek a larger donation from the government” than from ordinary donors.

In response to a request for information on the legal mechanism being used to make such a payment, and when it might be expected, a press officer for the Department said it was “examining a suitable mechanism to make the payment, and we are working through a number of other related issues. We hope to be in a position to have these issues resolved very shortly.”

“Hard costs”

Aside from the total prize fund of €1.2m, McKeon said the competition was also likely to accrue between €100,000 and €150,000 in “hard costs” such as those of couriers or taxis, which could not expected to be covered pro bono in the same way that the use of other facilities, such as the rental of the Aviva Stadium for tonight’s grand final, had been.

ASM “has not determined what it will do” with the remaining funding of approximately €600,000, he added, explaining that it would likely be given either to the two winning ideas to further implement their ideas, or put towards the implementation of other ideas submitted to the contest.

ASM has told SIPO that it does not fit the description of a ‘third party’ lobbying group; TheJournal.ie understands that ASM has yet to respond to a further request from SIPO to clarify the nature of its operations.

Under the terms of the Electoral Acts, ‘third party’ entities engaging in political lobbying may not receive more than IR£5,000 (or €6,349.39) from individual donors (whether private individuals or corporate bodies) in any one year – meaning that if classified as a ‘third party’, ASM would be entitled to raise a legal maximum of €82,529.07 from the Department and the twelve other bodies.

Limits

Solicitor Simon McGarr, who has submitted a request for SIPO to investigate whether ASM is in breach of the Electoral Acts by refusing to register with them, told TheJournal.ie that to register with SIPO would force ASM to acknowledge the limits on political donations.

Doing so would require ASM to either return any donations exceeding the legal limit to the donors, or to forfeit such funds to SIPO, he said.

He also said that there did not seem to be any legal mechanism for the Department to gift a sum of €300,000 to a private company, saying it was questionable for the Department to be contributing towards a company that would ultimately use its funds to lobby the government for legislative change.

Members of the SIPO Commission include Comptroller & Auditor General, John Buckley, who – as noted by solicitor Rossa McMahon – wrote in his annual report earlier this week that the state needed to exercise an “adequate control and inspection to guarantee the [...] correctness of charge to public funds”. Other members of the Commission include the clerks of the Dáil and Seanad, Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, and former High Court judge Matthew P Smith who is its chair.

ASM has yet to file accounts with the Companies Registration Office. Earlier this month TheJournal.ie revealed that four of the five finalists in the competition had received six votes of public approval or less.

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Gavan Reilly

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