Democracy & Justice

Irish Civil Society Groups Launch Campaign to Save 'The People’s Voice'

A coalition of Irish NGOs launched their campaign to reform the Electoral Act, which they say is stifling civil society by prohibiting international funding and domestic donations of over €2,500.

by Sinéad Nolan

The Electoral Act prohibits those who engage in “political” work from accepting any donations from abroad, anonymous donations above €100, or donations of more than €2,500 from any one source. In recent years, the body which enforces the act, the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPOC), has been interpreting the word “political” to encompass the general advocacy work of civil society.

While Ireland has a strong human rights record, and has played a leading role on the international stage in championing civil society freedom, its own domestic law now presents difficulties for civil society organisations operating within Ireland.

Over the past year, the Electoral Act has been used against organisations working on equality issues, such as equal access to education and reproductive rights, and in some cases has contributed to their closure.

SIPOC has a complaints mechanism which is open to abuse by opponents of certain organisations’ work, particularly because SIPOC’s interpretation of the act and its enforcement procedures are not clear to the public.

Threatened with prosecution

Amnesty International Ireland recently took SIPOC to court over the regulator’s demand that they return a grant from the Open Society Foundations for their My Body, My Rights campaign. Amnesty was eventually vindicated when SIPOC accepted that it did not follow fair procedures in the case.

However, other organisations have not been in a position to fight like this.

In 2017, Education Equality, a small voluntary organisation working on equal access to education for children of all religious backgrounds, was forced to hand back €5,500 in seed funding it had received from the Humanist Association of Ireland, and it can no longer accept donations over €100.

April Duff, the legal officer for Education Equality, has spoken about the impact that this had on the organisation, saying, “The correspondence [with SIPOC] detracted hugely from the work we were supposed to be doing. We were all volunteers, and it took a huge amount of our time and resources to decide how to react and maintain our line that we should be able to keep our funding. The emails from SIPOC continuously referred to the fact that it was an offence under the legislation to refuse to comply, so we were a group of volunteers being constantly threatened with prosecution”.

EQUATE, another organisation working on equal access to education, was subjected to a sustained campaign of complaints from parties opposed to its work. The intensity of SIPOC’s pursuit of EQUATE, and the uncertainty that its actions created, were factors in EQUATE’s decision to wind down in late 2017.

The regulator never made its procedures clear to EQUATE; its correspondence simply demanded that EQUATE respond to complaints and demands made, all the while reminding EQUATE of the criminal penalties under the Electoral Act.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that a SIPOC staff member was in constant contact with one of the complainants, who was also an advocate on behalf of the Church of Ireland. At the time, the Church of Ireland were lobbying against EQUATE’s work to amend school admissions legislation – the so-called baptism barrier. SIPOC informed this individual of its dealings with EQUATE and of EQUATE’s internal decision-making. These records also show that in March and May 2017, SIPOC informed EQUATE that there was no evidence to support the complaints against them.

Nonetheless, in July 2017 SIPOC contacted EQUATE’s primary (Irish) funder, demanding information and a meeting to discuss whether they were involved in activities prohibited under the act.

Impact 'very real'

The Electoral Act was originally intended to stop foreign actors exerting an undue influence in Irish elections. When looked at from this perspective, it is unthinkable that organisations like EQUATE and Education Equality, who were funded by Irish donors and working to secure the right to education of all Irish children, should be targeted under this law.

And yet, that is exactly what has happened. The law has been misused to such an extent that children of minority beliefs in Ireland have all but lost two of their most effective advocates.

Individuals who are opposed to equality and human rights can also abuse the legislation in other ways, even when the regulator does not follow up on their complaints.

Last year, while the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) was publicly campaigning on reproductive rights, an individual claiming to be a journalist contacted a number of their funders, accusing them of engaging in illegal activity under the Electoral Act. No investigation was initiated, but ICCL was forced to seek legal advice and their funding agreements were put at risk.

ICCL has observed that, over the past number of years, SIPOC has been pursuing a broader interpretation of the law, one that allows it to target larger organisations like ICCL and Amnesty who do receive international funding, but also small organisations who are funded by Irish donors and are often working on a voluntary basis.

This approach is in direct conflict with the leadership role that Ireland continues to play in defending civil society freedom at the United Nations, as was witnessed recently in Ireland’s sponsorship of a resolution on civil society at the 38th Human Rights Council.

The director of ICCL, Liam Herrick, has said, “We are sure that Irish legislators did not intend the law to have such severe effects on civil society, but the impact which we are experiencing is very real.”

What’s next?

ICCL is leading the Coalition for Civil Society Freedom, which is also comprised of Transparency International Ireland, Amnesty International Ireland, Front Line Defenders, The Wheel (the representative body for the Irish community and voluntary sector), and the campaigning platform Uplift. Together they drafted alternative wording for the Electoral Act and had it launched by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in Dublin.

They have also prepared an open letter to the Irish prime minister demanding reform of the Electoral Act.

Will you support Irish civil society and add your name to the call for reform?