(The Irish Times) Law being used to shut down organisations holding politics to account

For community and voluntary organisations across Ireland, yesterday’s settlement of the court proceedings between Amnesty International Ireland and the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) brought great relief.

At the High Court, Sipo withdrew its demand for Amnesty to hand back a grant received in 2015 from the Open Society Foundations, conceded that it had treated Amnesty unfairly and agreed to close its investigation into Amnesty’s human rights work.

This outcome is a vindication for Amnesty but the case and its outcome provide a clear indication that certain provisions of the Electoral Act are deeply flawed, and raise serious concerns about how the law is applied to civil society by the statutory regulator.

At the Irish Council for Civil Liberties we are aware of cases other than Amnesty’s, where Sipo’s enforcement of the Electoral Act has shut down civil society advocacy, and where the groups were too small to fight back.

At a press conference we held earlier this month, Education Equality, a voluntary group working to reform education policy, told the story of that organisation’s experiences with Sipo. Having received a starter grant of €10,000 from the Humanist Association of Ireland, Education Equality was informed by Sipo that its aim of ending of the “baptism barrier” to entry to primary schools was deemed “political” under the Electoral Act. As a result it was forced by Sipo to return funds received.

Political purposes

These were two voluntary organisations trying to contribute to public policy in an open and transparent manner, who were threatened with prosecution for activities that had nothing to do with any election or referendum campaign.

The original purpose of the Electoral Act was to prevent inappropriate corporate or foreign funding of candidates and parties. However, the law was poorly drafted and contains an overly broad definition of “political purposes” and the types of activities to be covered by the funding rules. The definition includes not just electoral campaigning but also all efforts at “promoting or procuring a particular outcome in relation to a policy or policies or functions of the Government or any public authority”.

In plain language, that means the rules apply to any effort to take part in public debate, whether you are a community organisation campaigning for better local amenities, or a national charity calling for better provision of healthcare or housing. Ironically, a law introduced to clean up politics is now being used to shut down organisations that hold politics to account on behalf of the public.

Sipo has many questions to answer arising from this case, particularly on how it deals with civil-society organisations that are not political parties, and how it processes complaints from the public. In yesterday’s settlement Sipo accepted that its enforcement attempts against Amnesty’s ordinary human rights work did not follow basic fair procedures. As a statutory body regulating an essential area of our public life, these cases should prompt a comprehensive review of how it interprets and applies the law in this area.

There is also a glaring issue of contradiction between Ireland’s international position on this issue and the situation under domestic law. Globally, Ireland takes a lead on the issue of protecting civil society space, with our diplomats at the United Nations recently driving a Human Rights Council resolution on the issue and Irish Aid actively providing “foreign” funding to civil-society organisations in other countries.

At the same time, the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency has criticised Ireland for operating funding rules that are similar to those used by repressive governments in other European countries to shut down human rights organisations.

Constructive engagement

Over the past year we have raised the issue with both the Department of Housing and Local Government and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and we have had positive and constructive engagement with both departments. In fact, we were assured by Tánaiste Simon Coveney that “A key priority for Ireland is to ensure coherence between the promotion and protection of human rights in our foreign policy and our domestic implementation of our international human rights obligations.”

We firmly believe that Ireland’s international position is a true reflection of the values of the Irish people and of the parties in the Oireachtas. We have a vibrant community and voluntary sector and Government should support the widest possible involvement of these groups in the making of public policy. We believe it is possible to provide an encouraging environment for such groups while retaining the integrity of our electoral system. Hopefully yesterday’s settlement will act as a catalyst for change.

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