(CIVICUS and Irish Council for Civil Liberties) Ireland has a vibrant and diverse civil society. An estimated 29,000 civil society organisations (CSOs), ranging from informal local non-profit groups to formally-registered national charities, play an active role on a wide range of issues and make a significant contribution to life in Ireland.1
They do so, in the main, with a high degree of freedom to exercise
their rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. This healthy “civic space” reflects the
vital role played by civil society in Ireland’s democracy, a role perhaps most effectively fulfilled when groups of citizens act collectively to influence government policy and shape the future direction of the country. This freedom is however being undermined in certain circumstances by provisions in Ireland’s Electoral Acts, which impose restrictions on the work of organisations which could be deemed to have “political purposes.” The Charities Act also constitutes a limitation on CSO activities because it does not include “human rights” as a legitimate charitable purpose.
Working on the basis that civil society in Ireland would be significantly strengthened through a repeal or reform of
these provisions, this paper provides a comparative assessment of how “political activities” of CSOs are regulated
in Ireland and three other European Union (EU) member states. This paper focuses particularly on organisations,
such as human rights organisations, which carry out public advocacy activities and rely on international sources
for a substantial portion of their funding. Considering the international and European law on the freedom of
association, and reflecting on Ireland’s existing laws in this area, the report examines how these issues are dealt with
in Netherlands, Germany and Finland.
Along with Ireland, these countries share a strong respect for democratic principles, a vibrant civil society and
similar levels of socio-economic development. All four countries are rated as “open” by the CIVICUS Monitor, a
global platform which tracks respect for civic space in 196 countries.2
These four countries are also well known for their strong promotion of civil society, human rights and democratic freedoms through their foreign policy and international development cooperation programmes. While Ireland is the only common law country among the four, the legal and policy issues explored apply to the actions of civil society groups, regardless of whether they operate in common or civil law systems.
Following a brief outline of key international and regional norms, the paper outlines relevant aspects of domestic
regulatory systems in Netherlands, Germany and Finland. A final section sets out what Ireland could learn from these examples, with a view to reforming its laws and policies governing “political activities” and foreign funding of CSOs.