IRELAND: Continued concern over impact of Irish Electoral Act on civil society’s advocacy activities

(CIVICUS Monitor)


On 19th January 2018, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) launched a report on the “Challenges facing civil society organisations working on human rights in the EU”. In the case of Ireland, the FRA warned against the vague definition of “political purpose” in the Irish Electoral (Amendment) Act of 2001, something highlighted in our last report for Ireland on the Monitor. There is concern over the unintended consequences such vague language may have on civil society’s advocacy activities. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties’ Liam Herrick also commented on the language in the Act, saying that it could be used to curtail the “legitimate role of civil society” and that it could “be interpreted as curtailing legitimate human rights advocacy”.

Amnesty International Ireland and Education Equality were recently caught under a strict interpretation of the Electoral Law in regards to donations received for what the authorities perceived as having a “political purpose”. Amnesty has challenged the order to return the money, and in a statement, Amnesty’s Colm O’Gorman declared that:

Ireland has, perhaps unintentionally, found itself among a group of countries who are cracking down on civil society groups”.

In a positive development, the latest survey by Edelman Trust Barometer shows a 12 percent increase in the credibility of NGO representatives in the eyes of the Irish public compared to the findings in their 2017 report (see slide 17 in the presentation above). According to the survey, NGOs are recognised as trustworthy institutions on issues such as revealing abuses of power, preventing discrimination and educating the public on important issues. Also, traditional media are enjoying more public trust despite growing concerns over the proliferation of fake news and disinformation.

Peaceful Assembly

On 28th January 2018, the Irish government announced that by the end of May 2018 a referendum on reforming the Irish anti-abortion laws will be held. The referendum will allow citizens to choose whether or not to repeal the eighth amendment of the constitution that pertains to abortion. The government’s decision to call a referendum on the issue follows a long process which saw political parties highly divided on the matter and sparked several pro-choice marches on the streets of many cities and towns across the country.

In the autumn of 2016, the Citizens’ Assembly was established to discuss sensitive issues in Irish politics, abortion being one on which it provided recommendations to the Irish parliament. Over a year later, in December 2017 parliament voted in favour of similar recommendations as were made by the Assembly. The government’s decision to move ahead with a referendum to appeal the ban on abortion has been heralded as a victory for protest movements. Leaders of the ‘Repeal the 8th’ movement welcomed how the government had moderated its anti-abortion tones as a result of the pro-choice mass mobilisations throughout the country.

The government also decided to hold the referendum before the end of May 2018 to ensure that younger Irish voters and students will be able to have a say. Student movements played an important role in the debate and students gathered in front of the parliament buildings as the government was taking deciding on the referendum. A student movement member – Ailbhe Smyth – commented, saying that:

“Come June and the broad mass of Irish students are on their way to other parts of the world such as the United States to work over the summer to pay for their studies. We have told the government it makes sense to hold the referendum in May as the students will still be in Ireland…The Union of Students of Ireland, along with ourselves, have been lobbying for a May vote and we hope – we think – the government has listened”.

Originally published on CIVICUS Monitor

Featured image via Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images