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Sunday 28 May 2023 Dublin: 14°C
Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland
Lynn Ruane I'm tabling a bill to support the voices of community and advocacy groups
We need a vibrant and active civil society. Otherwise politicians and big business will call all the shots, writes Senator Lynn Ruane.

CIVIL SOCIETY IN Ireland has been at the coal face of the transformation of Irish society.

Without that leadership, it is difficult to picture what our social policies and human rights standards would look like.

Civil society is made up of NGOs, human rights and civil liberties organisations, community groups, environmental campaigners and others.

It includes the grassroots organisations that form when ordinary people identify a problem and get together to try to solve it. I’m talking about everyone from Amnesty International and homeless charities to your local Tidy Towns committee.

I believe we should support vibrant and active civil society spaces because these varied voices create great diversity within our national debates. If they were silenced – that would leave politicians and influential corporations to decide the future of our country alone.

But those civil society voices are at risk of being silenced by the unintended consequences of the Electoral Act 2001.

That Act means that stringent rules – intended for political campaigns – are sometimes being applied to other organisations involved in day to day advocacy work.

The Electoral Act

In 1997, the Oireachtas passed the Electoral Act to regulate the disclosure of donations received for political purposes, this includes donations received in support of a particular candidate for election or a political party.

The Act includes stringent restrictions on donation limits, anonymous donations and donations-in-kind amongst other provisions.

In 2001, a change was made to extend the Act to include donations received for referendum campaigns and to include donations received by third parties for ‘political purposes’.

The wording in the Act used to define ‘political purposes’ (which determines which third parties are subject to these strict campaign spending rules and requirements) are so broad and so vague that they can feasibly be applied to ordinary advocacy work.

This has had unintended consequences on civil society organisations working in political advocacy, such as Education Equality.

It was never the intention of the Oireachtas that such groups would be impacted and this is demonstrated through the debates on the legislation. 

Defining political purposes
The meaning of ‘political purposes’ has evolved to include any work that is deemed to seek changes in how any public body does its work. 

As a result of the problematic wording, the Standards in Public Office Commission are obliged to apply the same rigorous and financial declaration standards to any group, who advocates for any particular outcome in relation to any government policy. 

So at present any community group (from a large charity to a local Tidy Towns group or community garden) which rightly calls on the local or national government to improve conditions for Irish people, could be found in breach of the Electoral Act if someone were to donate more than €100 to them.

But without such donations, every one of these organisations would have to shut down.

The disclosure requirements for candidates and political parties are high and onerous precisely because they should be. The integrity of our elections is vital and those involved in elections should have to fully disclose how their campaigns are financed.

Strict regulations exist around international donations, anonymous donations, cash donations, the need for registration of donations by corporate actors, specific financial accounting practices requirements and strict requirements on the returning of donations that are outside the legal limits.

These are enforced by significant criminal offences; the penalty for non-compliance for a third party could be as high as a €25,000 fine and three years’ imprisonment.

However, civil society organisations engaged in their normal advocacy work, such as campaigning for improvements to our healthcare or education systems are very different to electoral activity.

The threat of serious criminal sanction itself serves as a huge chilling effect on the valid lobbying work of civil society groups. Since many of these organisations are run by volunteers, some community groups have been forced to close in the face of the disproportionately high compliance standards required by the Act.

There have even been deeply concerning reports of lobbyists using the ambiguity in the law to report organisations working on the opposing side of a particular policy issue to the Standards In Public Office Commission, with the express intention of using the high compliance standards required to divert resources from valid advocacy work.

This week, I will be introducing legislation in the Seanad with cross-party support to rectify this issue.

We’ve been lucky to be supported in this work by the Coalition for Civil Society Freedom, a network of civil society groups, including the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Amnesty International and the Wheel who have come together to demand change.

The purpose of our proposed bill is to address the unintended consequences of the amendment made to the Electoral Acts in 2001.

The law was introduced to prevent foreign interference in elections and was never intended to prevent valid advocacy by civil society for a better country.

The valuable and necessary work of civil society who rightly engage in public policy debates should not be treated as electoral activity, and they should not be subject to the same rules on donations.

Ireland is already a world leader in defending civil society and the rule of law internationally. We played a key role in developing the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders and we’ve even sponsored a motion in the UN Human Rights Council on Civil Society Space.

Yet the EU Fundamental Rights Agency and our own Standards in Public Office Commission have criticised our domestic laws for chilling the work of civil society groups. These weaknesses must be addressed.

We cannot afford to lose the voices that represent marginalised groups and ordinary communities – they are far too important.

Lynn Ruane is an independent senator. 

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