Ivan Cooper is Director of Public Policy with the Wheel. He gave this address calling for reform of the Electoral Act on 6 July 2018.
As anyone paying attention to current affairs will be aware, there are very good reasons why we should all be concerned about the issue of outside parties seeking to improperly influence the democratic election processes that we hold dear.
However, it is increasingly clear to the coalition of organisations here today (the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, The Wheel, Transparency International Ireland, Front Line Defenders, and Uplift), that the Electoral Act as amended in 2001, designed to prevent improper foreign and political influence over elections in Ireland, is having the effect of muzzling legitimate and important voices in civil society, such as community organisations, non-profits, charities and international NGOs among others.
We have seen how Education Equality were ordered by the Standards in Public Offices Commission (SIPO) – who apply the provisions of the Electoral Acts – to return part of a €10,000 seed funding donated by the Humanist Association of Ireland, where the funding was neither “foreign” nor “political”.
The members of the coalition do not believe that the Oireachtas intended to choke civil society when it amended the Electoral Act in 2001 the inadvertent effect of which has been to prohibit community organisations, non-profits, charities and international NGOs from accepting, for extremely loosely defined “political purposes” :
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
In response to the growing problem, the coalition of civil society organisations are today calling on the Irish Government to ensure that our international commitments to upholding and protecting civil society voice are reflected in our own domestic laws. In line with this we are calling on Government to remove the donation restrictions in the Electoral Acts on civil society organisations engaging in advocacy outside of elections and referendums to ensure that are no restrictions on funding for civil society actors which undermine the right to freedom of association and civil society voice. We believe that an amendment of the relevant sections of the Electoral Act could be effected by a simple amending bill, or as a part of a wider reforming Bill.
We 5 organisations are committed to engaging with Government, and if necessary the Oireachtas, to bring forward amending legislation. We will be contacting relevant Government ministers again on this over coming months.
We are also seeking the support of other civil society organisations and individuals and would encourage people to sign the Defend Civil Society petition hosted by Uplift which we are launching today: https://action.uplift.ie/campaigns/284
We will be hosting events, seminars and roundtables with civil society over the coming months to build awareness of the need for change in this vital area.
In conclusion, we are optimistic that the strong DFAT position and the positive signs we have received from Government and parties mean that an agreed solution can be found.
*The Coalition for Civil Society Freedom will host a conference with the EU Fundamental Rights Agency and Civicus on 11 October.