8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the referendum campaign on the eighth amendment of the Constitution. (Question 17977/18 asked on 02 May 2018)

The Taoiseach: The reply may make the issue somewhat moot.

The question relates to my role as Taoiseach in the referendum campaign on the eight amendment of the Constitution. I have no function in the matter. My Department has no role in any campaign related to the referendum and no involvement beyond its normal role of supporting and providing a secretariat for the Government.

Deputy Micheál Martin: The Taoiseach misunderstood the nature of the question. I will take the opportunity to make a few points in the context of it.

While in international terms Ireland has highly independent and regulated elections, we are only beginning to get our act together in referendums. International experience shows that overseas attempts to interfere in votes are increasing rapidly. The work of and communication from the Referendum Commission to all citizens will be crucial as they will inform all homes objectively of what is being proposed.

In this House we all accept that the issue of the eighth amendment is deeply personal and complex. Given recent polls, there is still a large number of people who are undecided and who will make up their minds in the next three weeks. I have been on doorsteps in different contexts and it is interesting that the issue is beginning to go live with people voicing more about it. Clearly, they are asking questions. The point is they are now engaging at the door, which is welcome.

The debate so far has been respectful on all sides. However, in today’s press it has been revealed that billboards with graphic and upsetting images have been placed outside maternity hospitals by a group which appears to be non-Irish and outside all regulatory oversight. The campaign is so extreme that it has even been attacked by a spokesperson for the part of the “No” campaign led by some of the main personalities in Youth Defence, an organisation not known for respecting boundaries in promoting its views.

There is, of course, what appears to be a tidal wave of online advertising, some of which does not link with a regulated Irish organisation. Given the roles of the Referendum Commission and the Standards in Public Office Commission, will the Taoiseach consider asking them at this point to track activity which they believe might raise concerns about the origins of the funding or other efforts to avoid Irish electoral law?

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: I reiterate those concerns which have been raised with me by people on the campaign trail who are regular Facebookers and say they cannot log-on without being bombarded with what are clearly expensive advertisements advancing the “No” position. Let me say clearly that those citizens who are campaigning for a “No” vote and hold that view are absolutely entitled to hold that view and participate in the debate and campaign, but we need to have a level playing pitch. I fear, particularly in social media advertising, that rules are being broken and lines crossed. Given that the campaign is live, I wonder what we can do at this stage and what Facebook - if I can name it - can do to adequately police and ensure that level of fairness.

On the graphic imagery that has appeared, particularly outside a number of maternity hospitals, I note the contrast with the removal of a mural which, for sure, was political but which in no way could have been deemed offensive, even by those who take a different political position. I am concerned that it seems no action has been taken to remove these images which - let it be said - for many women attending maternity hospitals who may have all manner of concerns and experiences have proved to be really traumatic.

Deputy Brendan Howlin: This is an important point. Our base law, the Constitution, is important. We have spend a great deal of time making sure that when we have a debate on changing the Constitution, it is conducted on a fair basis. We had the McKenna judgment and others that sought properly to limit the capacity of the State to influence a vote in order that there would be a level playing field to enable people to hear objectively everybody’s point of view in a transparent way above everything else. There are real concerns, not only about the volume but also the unattributed nature of so much of the advertising that is bombarding social media at an incredible cost. It is targeted and often not clear. For example, there is a website, undecided8.org, which one could confuse for being an official information website of the Referendum Commission. These are improper developments. It is clearly not in the purview of the Referendum Commission, as structured, but there is now an undeniable case for the immediate establishment of a standing electoral commission. It would be too late for this referendum, but there will be other referenda. When one sees the international debate on outside influences interfering in elections, we would be foolish to think we will not be influenced by somebody, either in elections or referenda, in the future.

My final comment on the disturbing imagery outside at least one maternity hospital is that yesterday I spoke to an “expectant father”, if that is the proper phrase to use, who was bringing his wife into the hospital. The child is beyond the due date and when there was a little concern yesterday, they found it really disturbing to be confronted with that imagery when they were looking after the health of their child. We need to have standards in the debates we have. By and large, this debate has been conducted in a calm and civilised manner and I hope it will continue in that way, but this is over the line.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: I have been canvassing for the past four or five weeks and one learns much about what people are saying and thinking on both sides in the course of canvassing. Whatever side people are on, they are overwhelmingly shocked by how vile the imagery is. They are really upset by and very angry about it. I take some consolation from the fact that many who were considering voting “No” will now vote “Yes” because they are appalled by this stuff. Nonetheless, the vile, offensive and traumatising nature of some of the imagery is below any standard of decency, both for women who have been through abortions and people in general, in particular, children who are sensitive about such matters. Children are asking their parents, “What is that?” It is disgusting and some measures must be taken to deal with it.

A point I do not know whether the Taoiseach is prohibited from making given his original answer but which I want to make to those campaigning for a “Yes” vote that arises from my experience of canvassing was borne out in the findings of a poll that came out at the weekend. The findings of the IPSOS poll were much publicised. They indicated that 47% of people would vote “Yes” but strangely what was less publicised was the answer to another question about the percentage of people who believed the law should be changed to allow women to choose to have an abortion, if they wished to do so. The Taoiseach may be aware the figure was 62%, which is strange. A tota of 47% said they would vote “Yes”, while 62% believed women should have the right to choose. That suggests we need to up our game in explaining what is at stake because when one calls to a door, people ask, “Yes to what? Repeal what?” People are not clued in to political debates. When one explains the position, many say that personally they are not sure about abortion but that they think people should be allowed make their own decisions. We need to get that simple, factual explanation of what those campaigning for a “Yes” vote are campaigning for to many of the “don’t knows” who are a little confused.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: As the 45 minutes have expired, I ask the Taoiseach for a brief response.

The Taoiseach: I will be as brief as I can.

I absolutely agree with the Deputies and leaders on the really graphic and vile billboards and posters that we have seen pop up throughout the State. They should be removed as they are upsetting to pregnant women and their partners. I know from my own experience that a lot of children who see them have questions to ask. They do not know what they are. They do not understand them. They ask their parents about it and put their parents in a very difficult position in trying to explain what it is all about. They are counterproductive, which is the only thing I can say about them that is any way positive. I hope they will be counterproductive and that people will revolt against them and the attitudes of the kind of people who think that sort of advertising is in any way appropriate or convincing. I am very wary of overseas involvement and overseas money being part of the campaign on either side. I have full confidence in the Referendum Commission and the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, to discharge their statutory functions.