8 December 2017
Election regulations are shutting down civil society, states ICCL
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) is today calling on Government to address deficiencies in Ireland’s electoral laws which are imposing severe restrictions on Irish civil society organisations (CSOs). Laws that were originally introduced to prevent political corruption are being applied to the ordinary work of community and voluntary organisations.
ICCL echoes the concerns shared by Deirdre Garvey, CEO of the Wheel, in this morning’s Irish Times with regard to the recent, more stringent, application of the 2001 amendment to the Electoral Act of 1997 by the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPOC).
Speaking today, ICCL Executive Director Liam Herrick said:
“As an organisation which has worked for forty years to defend freedom of expression and freedom of association, ICCL is alarmed that the current effect of the “third parties” provisions of the Electoral Acts is that civil society in Ireland is now placed in a position of legal uncertainty, with restrictions on funding and the threat of criminal sanctions becoming more commmonplace. While we do not believe Government or the Oireachtas intended these restrictions to arise, the reality is that there is now a “chilling effect” on the work of human rights organisations.”
The difficulty arises from the “third party” provision of the Electoral Acts, whereby campaign financing regulations aimed at preventing improper interference in the political process are applied to civil society engaged in their ordinary role of “influencing public policy”. SIPOC itself has consistently acknowledged, as far back as 2003, that the “third party” provisions of the Electoral Acts are drawn so broadly that they could potentially restrict the necessary activity of civil society in a democratic society.
Mr. Herrick continued, “We fully endorse the proper regulation and oversight of campaign funding with respect to referendum campaigns and we are fully committed to compliance with Electoral Acts. For example, ICCL has registered as a third party on a number of occasions where we took an active role during referendum campaigns – most recently during the Marriage Equality Referendum and the Oireachtas Inquiries Referendum. However, this legislation is currently being applied outside of the realm of a referendum to stifle the legitimate work of human rights and advocacy organisations.”
In the past, SIPOC took a much more balanced approach to the implementation of what they themselves have admitted is flawed legislation. However, over the past year, a different approach has been applied, with civil society organisations being instructed to return funding, demands made on organisations to register as third parties, demands made on organisations (charities) to register as corporate donors, threats of prosecution, and burdensome queries into operations. The result has been a serious chilling effect on organisations’ ability to access funding.
In July of this year ICCL, Amnesty International and Transparency International raised our concerns in writing with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, and in August we raised our concerns with SIPOC itself. Amongst these concerns is the potential for the complaints procedure under the Electoral Acts being used by those who would wish to suppress public debate and freedom of expression.
“ICCL is particularly concerned that some of our fellow human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Education Equality, have recently been requested to return funding under the legislation. For Education Equality this has meant that they spent most of 2017 fighting this directive instead of carrying out their vital advocacy work and it will have a significant impact on their campaigning in 2018 too.”
The Irish government has been vocal in its support for human rights defenders and civil society actors who are subjected to similar legislation in Putin’s Russia, whereby non-governmental organisations are required to register any foreign funding they receive with the government. Indeed, the ability for NGOs and human rights defenders to receive foreign funding is something that Ireland is bound to, and does, protect in other countries under the EU Guidelines for the protection of human rights defenders. ICCL is calling on the government to implement those same protections domestically.
“While we believe it was not and is not the intention of any Irish Government to restrict civil society in this way, in effect our law is now being implemented in a manner similar to in Hungary and Russia. Civil society organisations have a right under international human rights standards to seek funding. Blanket bans on foreign funding or caps on donations, such as this, violate international human rights treaties to which Ireland is a party. It is abundantly clear that this law is fundamentally incompatible with the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association as enshrined in international human rights law and ICCL calls for immediate action to amend this.”
 Irish recommendation to Russia during second cycle of Russia’s UPR: “Repeal the amendment which requires NGOs that accept foreign funding to register and identify themselves as “foreign agents”, as well as the amended definition of treason”. Source: UPRinfo.org