IRELAND: murales removal sparks concerns midst referendum campaign

(CIVICUS Monitor)

Referendum campaign period officially underway

At the end of March, the government announced that the referendum on repealing the 8th Amendment to the constitution is scheduled to take place on 25th May 2018. This announcement officially opened the campaign period and brought relevant provisions of Ireland’s electoral laws into force. The CIVICUS Monitor previously reported on how the ambiguity surrounding the definition of a “third party” in the Electoral Act was posing a threat to civil society working on sensitive policy issues. Despite these concerns, many civil society organisations decided to register formally as third parties and accepted the more stringent funding regulation imposed by the Act as a result.

On 20th April, the Charities Regulator requested that the Project Arts Centre remove a mural related to repealing the 8th Amendment by street artist Maser, claiming that it constitutes a “political activity” which is in violation of the 2009 Charities Act. Disregarding the request would have meant that the organisation would have lost its charity status. The director of the Centre, Cian O’Brien, agreed to remove it but declared that:

“I am calling this action today defiant compliance. Restrictive legislation has intervened in a creative institution and in order to protect the future of that institution and all the artists who work here now and may work here in the future, we have decided to comply with the order of the charities regulator”;

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) stated that the request poses a threat to freedom of expression and freedom of association in Ireland. Director Liam Herrick noted that:

“Threatening an organisation’s charitable status for engaging in ‘political’ art is a new departure. We’d be very concerned about how the regulator defines what is or isn’t political art? Where is the line drawn and who decides that? These are serious freedom of expression questions, especially given that artistic expression is afforded higher protection under human rights law. There are also serious questions about the role of the Charities Regulator in policing the freedom of expression of charities. Are we likely to see a much wider role for the regulator in relation to freedom of speech by organisations and institutions, including the catholic church?”

He also added that this incident could lead the Charities Regulator to threaten other organisations with requests related to other sensitive issues, and thereby contribute to a chilling effect on the sector.

NGOs involved in the campaign around the referendum have maintained a cautious approach to campaigning and most are avoiding the use of foreign funding for abortion-related activities. Despite this, some rights-based organiations have been targeted by articles and defamatory social media activities reporting misleading information on alleged links to the Hungarian philanthropist George Soros. ICCL was targeted by an anti-choice protest on 16th March, with protesters brandishing graphic anti-choice placards. ICCL has also been the subject of unfounded allegations and smear attacks on social media, including the tweet shown below:

In Ireland, space for civil society is well-protected and civil society generally receives strong support from lawmakers who regularly engage charities in policy debates. Nevertheless, funds received by civil society organisations are limited and not always free from interference. In fact, there are an increasing number of cases in which anti-advocacy clauses are inserted into grants, including those given to charities working to combat homelessness. Homelessness is one of the most pressing social problems in Ireland today, with the number of officially homeless people almost reaching the 10,000 mark in March 2018. In January 2018, it was reported that, in 2017 the Dublin Region Homeless Executive proposed limitations on organisations’ freedom to disclose information to the media. These limitations included the fact that charities would be required to ask for authorisation to speak with journalists. The move was criticised by rights groups.

Featured image: @IvanaBacik