IRELAND: Regulator settles dispute with Amnesty Ireland over foreign funding

(European Civic Forum to CIVICUS Monitor)

On 31st July 2018, the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) accepted that the process leading to the adoption of a decision in November 2017, which requested Amnesty International to return a donation from the Open Society Foundations (OSF), was “procedurally flawed”. Fiona Crowley from Amnesty International explained that “the decision by the High Court makes no determination of the lawfulness of the OSF grant, but did agree to close its investigation into the grant”. SIPO also agreed to support part of the costs of the proceedings.

In reaction, Amnesty International Ireland wrote:

“Amnesty International Ireland has been vindicated in our decision to challenge the decision. […] However, our primary concern has always been and remains with the law. […] We believe this law contravenes Ireland’s obligations under international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of association and expression. This is, of course, a matter for the Government and not the Commission. The Government must urgently act to amend this law to ensure it no longer obstructs the work of civil society groups and violates civil society freedoms.”

As previously reported to the CIVICUS Monitor, the Electoral Act bans donations to “third parties” for “political purposes” from abroad and limits donations up to EUR 100 Euro from abroad. Recently, the broad definition of “political purposes” was applied to advocacy work conducted by CSOs in Ireland. The report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights on challenges for organisations working on human rights in the EU also found that “investigations are often triggered by complaints to the regulatory body, so enforcement can inadvertently be selectively targeted”.

After a heated campaign during Ireland’s recent abortion referendum, the issue of reforming the Electoral Law came back on civil society’s agenda ahead of further referendums expected in the coming months. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Wheel, Front Line Defenders, Transparency International and Uplift launched a petition to request the reform of the law:

“The gagging effect of the Electoral Acts means many important voices are not being heard by decision-makers and politicians. There’s a risk that increasingly only the wealthy and those who do not need to seek donations to make their views known will get to have their voices heard.”

In July 2018, SIPO’s annual report addressed the issue of reviewing the Electoral Act, stressing the need to change the notion of “third parties” based on the amount of expenditure rather than the source of the donation, the establishment of an Electoral Commission, and the inclusion of “regulation of digital means of influence in an electoral or referendum campaign”. Similar conclusions and recommendations also emerged in the report by the Inter-departmental group on the security of Ireland’s electoral process and disinformation which assessed the “substantive issues arising from recent experiences in other democratic countries with regard to the use of social media by external, anonymous or hidden third parties”.

While civil society organisations in Ireland welcomed the recommendations in the two reports, some also highlighted that they fell short of addressing the need to clearly define “political purposes”. ICCL commented:

“While at one level, the report emphasises the importance of hearing from civil society in order to preserve Ireland’s democratic foundations, the report fails to address this key issue which has been highlighted by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency as an example of electoral regulation having an unintended and disproportionate effect on free speech and freedom of association.”

Reform of the Electoral Law, they said, should involve civil society at all stages. ICCL also added: “We believe that the Electoral Commission must be properly equipped to enforce election regulations in the online sphere and to protect individuals’ privacy rights including the right to be free from unlawful micro-targeting in online advertising.”