What is the problem?
The problem is that a law which was originally intended to prohibit large or anonymous donations to political parties is now being applied to the campaigning work of civil society organisations, preventing them from carrying out their legitimate human rights and social justice work.
The Electoral Act 1997 correctly regulates funding of election candidates and political parties by prohibiting them from accepting the following:
- Donations from foreign sources
- Anonymous donations of more than €100
- Cash donations of more than €200
- Donations of more than €2,500 from one source
However, since 2001, these same restrictions apply to all donations to not just parties and candidates, but to anyone (referred to as a third party in the law) deemed to be involved in so-called “political purposes”.
The law defines “political purposes” very broadly, so broadly in fact, that it encompasses human rights and social justice work. The wording bans any group of citizens from raising significant amounts of money to campaign for a particular policy or to criticise the activities of the government or any public authority or official. Contravention of these funding rules is a criminal offence carrying serious financial penalties and the possibility of imprisonment for up to three years.
The ICCL is in favour of transparency regarding donations to charities and CSOs in general, and particularly during referendums or elections periods. However, we are extremely concerned that the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPOC) is now applying the law to civil society’s legitimate attempts to bring about change. This places Ireland in the same legal position as countries such as Hungary and Russia which prevent foreign funding of civil society, although in our case these restrictions are the result of poor regulation rather than deliberate policy decisions.
Several CSOs in Ireland have already felt the effects of SIPOC’s strict interpretation of the law. Meanwhile, because the law only applies to donations, companies and individuals who can afford to pay for their own advocacy and do not need to raise funds are allowed to engage with the political system as much as they like.
What needs to change?
The Electoral Act 1997 needs to be amended in order to treat elections and referendums (where restrictions on donations are necessary) separately from the more general advocacy work of civil society which should be encouraged and supported.
Is change possible?
Yes. ICCL does not believe that the government intended to choke civil society when it amended the Electoral Act in 2001. Changing the relevant sections of the Electoral Act could be effected by a simple amending bill, or as a part of a wider reform of electoral law.
Sign this petition to call for change:
For a more detailed look at the Electoral Act, please see here: https://www.iccl.ie/human-rights/civil-society-space/reform-electoral-act/detailed/