Your Country, Your Call: SIPO fails the test

I have received a reply from the Standards In Public Office Commission regarding my request for an investigation of An Smaoineamh Mór Limited, the company running the Your Country, Your Call competition and lobby group. You can read the text of it below.

They appear to have agreed to my request to investigate the company and are informing me that having done so they are “satisfied that contributions received by An Smaoineamh Mór were neither given nor received for political purposes.”

The reply from the SIPO Commission quotes An Smaoineamh Mór Ltd’s two responses to my request for investigation. For clarity, I’ll summarise and reply to both in turn.

1) The competition lacks any political element as its aim was not the procurement or promotion of any particular outcome re government policies.

The competition’s purpose is to obtain the rights to, and to then implement, two plans. Those plans, it is acknowledged on the YCYC website , may require (and now that the winners have been announced we can say they will require) “administrative or procedural change before implementation can be effected.”

It goes on to say plainly that “this will be part of the task of the implementation phase of the competition.” The word ‘this’ in that sentence can only refer to the task of lobbying for and procuring that administrative change. There is no other available reading of the An Smaoineamh Mór Ltd quoted statement.

2) When Dr. Von Prondzynski said on Newstalk that he thought it a quite likely scenario that An Smaoineamh Mór would lobby for government policy, he wasn’t necessarily representing the position of the company.

Dr. Von Prondzynski was held out by the company to speak for them on radio and to respond to my original Irish Times article on the company’s behalf, and was described as a member of their ‘steering group’ (a corporate vehicle I am unfamiliar with). The fact that he was not a director of the company does not preclude his statements from being  indicative of the aims of the company. It is certainly not proof that he was wrong, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. No such evidence is presented and all the available facts point elsewhere.

Given the above facts, I do not see how the Standards in Public Office Commission decision was reached in the face of the evidence before the Commission. If it has been based solely on the above two points (one a denial of demonstrable fact, the other an irrelevancy)  from An Smaoineamh Mór Ltd, it is a shameful decision. Should that prove to be the case, this is a precedent which hollows out the regulatory function of the Standards in Public Office Commission in relation to Third Parties. The Commission will have abdicated their responsibilities to control the collection and distribution of monies intended to bring about particular legislative change.

The country has seen enough of the consequences of regulators who decline to regulate not to allow this potential outcome to go unquestioned.

I have made a request under Section 18 of the Freedom of Information Act seeking a statement from the Commission setting out

(a) the reasons for their act and

(b) any findings on any material issues of fact made for the purposes of the Act.

The SIPO Commission’s letter to me follows:

Dear Mr. McGarr,

I refer to previous correspondence in relation to the above and An Smaoineamh Mór.

The Standards Commission wrote to an An Smaoineamh Mór on 1 September 2010 seeking clarification on a query raised by you based on your view that all donations were given for political purposes as defined by the Act and that donors made payments in the knowledge that An Smaoineamh Mór intended to use the money to promote or lobby for a change in the fiscal or legal or regulatory circumstances of Ireland via a competition and a lobbying campaign under the style and title of “Your Country Your Call”.  An Smaoineamh Mór was also asked about a comment made by Dr Ferdinand Von Prondzynsk (sic), during a News Talk Radio FM interview on 26 April 2010.  The Standards Commission received a response from An Smaoineamh Mór.

In its reply, An Smaoineamh Mór rejects the notion that donations were received for political purposes and states that contributions could not have been made for any political purposes as the competition lacks any political element and its purpose was never the procurement or promotion of any particular outcome in relation to government and/to local authority policies.  It states that it is simply an initiative undertaken to encourage and promote creativity and to stimulate growth in the economy.

An Smaoineamh Mór states that the competition website states that winning proposals may require legislative administrative or procedural change before implementation can be effected and that this may be a consideration as part of the task of the implementation phase of the competition.  A reference to possible legislative change and a recognition of existing parameters as to what can be done at a practical level does not make the competition “a lobbying campaign” and does not bring the competition or the company within the scope of the definition of “political purposes”.

In relation to the reference to a radio interview given by Dr Ferdinand Von Prondzynsk (sic), to NewsTalk Radio on 26 April 2010, An Smaoineamh Mór  states that while Dr Von Prondzynsk is a member of the steering group,  he is not a director of the Company and his comments do not represent the position of the Company and do not reflect the overall aim and tenor of the competition and his comments are not a basis to designate the Company as a third party seeking donations for political purposes.

Following a thorough examination of the matter, the Standards Commission is satisfied that contributions received by An Smaoineamh Mór were neither given nor received for political purposes.  In this regard the Standards Commission is also satisfied that there is no evidence to support the view that An Smaoineamh Mór has a statutory obligation to register as a third party in accordance with section 23C of the Act.

Yours faithfully,

Standards Commission Secretariat

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