Last month I wrote an article for the Irish Times asking some questions regarding the Your Country Your Call competition. As a result, members of the competition ‘Steering Group’, including Professor Von Prondzynski, the President of DCU, have elaborated on their previous positions both on those pages and in radio interviews.
Some questions have been answered. Some have been met with a blunt refusal to answer. But the most interesting thing to have emerged from those responses is how they lead to much larger questions in their turn. Let’s take a stroll around some of those issues.
Who has given what?
Thanks to Prof. Von Prondzynski we now know that everyone who has given money to YCYC is now named amongst their list of contributors on their website. Here’s the list:
Accenture, AIB, Alchemy Event Management Ltd., An Focal, Bank of Ireland, Bord Gáis, Business & Finance,Business Plus, Cawley Nea/ TBWA, Cisco, Clear Channel, College View DCU,Computers in Business, Computer Scope, Cork IT, CRH, Thomas Crosbie Holdings, Communicorp, Corporate PR Photography, Arthur Cox & Co, DCC, J C Decaux, Diageo Ireland, Digital Ireland, Digital Times, Drury, Dublin City University, Ernst & Young, ESB,Explicit Cork IT, Facebook, Glen Dimplex, , Google, Hotpress, HP, Independent Newspapers, Irish Computer,Irish Daily Mail, Irish Daily Star,Irish Examiner, Irish Mail on Sunday, Irish Mirror, Irish Sun, Irish Times Newspapers, Irish Voice, Kerry Group, Kinetic, Knowledge Ireland, KPMG, Loosehorse,Marketing Age, Mutiny, JP McManus, Ray Mac Mánais, National Gallery of Ireland, Neworld Associates, News of the World,Newstalk, Omnicom Media Group, Owner Manager, PC Live,Print and Display, PwC, Regional Newspapers of Ireland, RTÉTelevision, RTÉ Radio, Screen Scene, Silicon Republic, Sky Television, Smart Company, Smurfit Kappa, Sunday Business Post, Sunday Independent, Sunday Mirror, Sunday Times, Sunday Tribune, The Ireland Funds, Times Online, Today FM, Trinity News, TV3, John Walsh Tunes, University Observer, Wall Street Journal Online, Windmill Lane.
Leaving aside the question of whose parents thought the name Owner Manger a suitable one for a child, we are still left to guess who amongst this roll-call of the great and the good have actually put their hands into their pockets- and how much they’ve paid. For reasons they haven’t even tried to explain, An Smaoineamh Mor’s representatives have flatly refused to answer the question. UPDATE 28th June 2010 ValueIreland points out in the comments below that the Sunday Business Post report that only 13 of the above companies have given money. But An Smaoineamh Mor still aren’t telling which 13.
The closest we’ve got to solid numbers was An Smaoineamh Mor Ltd Director, and former Governor of the Bank of Ireland, Dr. Laurence Crowley saying at the launch of the competition in Feburary that €2 million had been donated. “We need a little more than that, but not a lot more”, he told the Irish Times. By the end of the competition this had become a development fund of €1 million and two prizes of €100,000. An Smaoineamh Mor Ltd’s refusal to discuss their finances openly means we can’t know how that difference of €.8 million arose, or whether its dispersal represents good value for money.
Did Minister Coughlan mislead the Dail in March of this year?
In contrast, this one has now been clearly answered.
When on Newstalk on Monday 26th April, Prof. VonProndzynski and I had the following exchange;
“Von Prondzynski: My understanding is that money was authorised by the government and I can’t really say more than that because I’m not knowledgeable about anything in further detail about that. But the government indicated to the promoters of the competition that €300,000 would be available. And that’s really the state of play as I’m aware of it.
Simon: And that was prior to the Minister saying that wasn’t decided?
Von Prondzynski: Yes, that was prior to that.”
Which is fair enough. There ought to be more questions arising from that, but they should be directed to the Minister.
Is Your Country Your Call legally sound?
Strangely, given how long the competition has been running, this one seems to have only unravelled over the last month. We’ve gone from a rather vague call for blue sky ideas- fresh, unpredictable and original- to something a lot more solid. The significance of the decision of An Smaoineamh Mor Ltd to accept donations combined with their intentions for the competition-winning ideas can now be more clearly seen.
From the Newstalk interview again;
“Von Prondzynski: We are not trying to set up a particular commercial enterprise or a particular commercialised prodect or process. what we’re trying to do here is to ensure that there are proposals that will create a backdrop in which others will then profit.
The nature of the winning proposal… won’t itself be a business but rather a process or for example a change in the fiscal or legal or regulatory backdrop which will allow others then, we hope lots of other people to put forward or to start business propositions.
Simon: Is it your intention to find a policy to lobby the government to change their proposal or policies on the back of?
Von Prondzynski: Yes that would be a quite likely scenario.”
Never mind that there is an entire judging panel which hadn’t even started its work when Prof. Von Prondzynski described in such detail what the winning submission will look like. Of greater significance is the meaning of this model for the legality of the competition as currently constituted.
An Smaoineamh Mor Ltd intends to become a pressure group. By its own admission it wants to lobby for a change in government policy. It has collected donations to pay for its actions to this end. The fact that it hasn’t yet decided what policy it will lobby for is irrelevant. Nor is the fact that the government has indicated that it is likely to be successful in its lobbying efforts. It has fallen squarely within the definition of a ‘third party’ under Section 49 Electoral (Amendment) Act, 2001
‘third party’ means any person, other than a political party registered in the Register of Political Parties under Part III of the Electoral Act, 1992 , or a candidate at an election, who accepts, in a particular year, a donation the value of which exceeds £100.”,
The problem is that, given the above clarification of the Your Country Your Call competition, its fundraising behaviour also appears to fall squarely within the definition of receiving money for ‘Political Purposes’ found in Section 22(2)(aa) of the 1997 Electoral Act, as inserted by Section 49 of the the Electoral (Amendment) 2001 Act.
The permitted upper limit of money which may be accepted for those purposes is not the €150,000 which An Smaoineamh Mor Ltd have self-imposed but rather €6,348.39. (per Section 23A of the 1997 Act as inserted by Section 49 (d) of the 2001 Act).
Helpfully, Section 23A (5) sets out what to do with any monies received above that limit. Within 14 days of the receipt of the excess money they must pay the balance back to the donor or to the Standards in Public Office Commission. When I rang them, SIPO confirmed that, as yet, An Smaoineamh Mor Ltd haven’t even registered as a third party with them.
All of which makes the idea that Minister Coughlan would have agreed to supply €300,000 of public money (in a time of financial crises) for the purposes of lobbying her own government to introduce an as-yet-unknown policy change even more peculiar- and questionable- than it was a month ago.