Sharp divisions have emerged between government and opposition over the attendance of eight TDs and government senators at the Punchestown races last month as guests of the Irish Bookmakers Association.
Main opposition Sinn Féin said their participation was “deeply concerning” and suggested a dysfunctional relationship between the gambling industry and the politicians tasked with regulating it.
“I fear this represents a conflict of interest,” said party drug abuse spokesman Thomas Gould.
However, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said he saw nothing wrong with their presence. “No rules were broken or ethical guidelines breached.”
The attendance of TDs and Senators in the races at Punchestown on April 28 was reported by the Daily Mail on Thursday, which said that among those attending were Seanad leader Regina Doherty; former minister Paul Kehoe; Clare TD Joe Carey, Senators Martin Conway, John Cummins and Gareth Ahearn (all Fine Gael); Tipperary TD Jackie Cahill; and Senator Paul Daly (Fianna Fáil).
The Irish Times contacted several of the named parliamentarians on Thursday, but was told all had made a collective decision not to respond or comment on the case.
The politicians had been invited to the corporate hospitality area of the races that day and were treated to a free meal and drink, as well as free entry to the race.
Privately, some of those present expressed annoyance at the coverage, saying it could not be construed as a conflict of interest. “We weren’t asked. Then they will tell TDs and ministers that they cannot accept tickets for the All Ireland Final because the GAA pressures the government from time to time,” one said.
Sinn Féin has focused most of its criticism on the proximity of racing with the long-awaited release of new gambling legislation, which will establish a gambling regulator in Ireland for the first time.
A senior party official said getting free tickets and hospitality was a gray area when there was no lobbying and politicians really had to exercise their judgment and discretion.
“In my opinion they showed poor judgment by going to the races given the timing, with the ongoing debate over gambling legislation,” the Sinn Féin figure said.
Mr Varadkar responded with detailed comments explaining why he believed the politicians had not exceeded any targets.
“I certainly don’t see anything wrong with people going to Punchestown. Obviously, if there was any lobbying at the event, it has to be reported under the Lobbying Act and I’m sure it will be.
“From what I can see, no rules were broken or ethical guidelines, and I think it’s important to say that.”
He said the government was moving ahead with plans to restrict gambling-related advertising and introduce a gambling regulator.
“We are not going to ban the game – I think that would be overkill – but we are going to regulate it better.”
He added: “I don’t think the fact that an industry is regulated means you can’t engage with it or necessarily accept hospitality from it.”
Sharon Byrne of the Irish Bookmakers Association said she had invited guests from a variety of backgrounds, including politicians “who are local to where the event is taking place as well as those with a known interest in sport”.
She added: “The IBA operates at all times in full compliance with the requirements of the Lobbying Register and there was no requirement to revert to the register.”