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Sipo's order that Amnesty should return €137,000 grant is quashed after High Court appeal

The donation was for Amnesty’s ‘My Body, My Rights’ campaign which sought a referendum on the Eighth Amendment.

Executive director of Amnesty International Ireland Colm O'Gorman after the referendum result.
Executive director of Amnesty International Ireland Colm O'Gorman after the referendum result.
Image: PA Images

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL’S HIGH Court challenge against Standards in Public Office Commission’s (Sipo) order to return a Swiss-based foundation’s donation of €137,000 for a campaign to increase support for a repeal referendum has been resolved.

As part of the settlement agreement, the High Court heard that Sipo now accepts its decision that the donation was for political purposes and must be returned was “procedurally flawed”.

Last November, Sipo ordered Amnesty to return a donation made in August 2015 by the Open Society Foundations (OSF), a body founded by businessman George Soros, for Amnesty’s international ‘My Body, My Rights’ campaign.

Sipo told Amnesty to return the monies after finding the donation was prohibited under Section 23 A2 of the 1997 Electoral Act after deeming it to be a donation for political purposes.

Amnesty denied the funds were used for political purposes and in its High Court proceedings said Sipo’s decision was flawed and should be set aside.

This morning, Maurice Collins SC for Sipo told Mr Justice Seamus Noonan the matter had been resolved following discussions between the parties.

As part of the settlement, counsel read extracts from a letter from Sipo to Amnesty stating that, “the Commission (Sipo) had concluded that the process leading to the adoption of the decision communicated in its decision in November 2017 was procedurally flawed” and “considers it appropriate” to consent to the order quashing the decision.

The letter also addressed a press release issued by Sipo in December 2013, which Amnesty had raised in its action.

The letter stated that:

Arising from third-party complaints the Commission made inquiries with Amnesty relating to the OSF grant. Sipo acknowledges that Amnesty cooperated fully with the Commission and responded to these inquiries.

“The Commission confirms that at no point did the OSF advice the Commission that the donation was for political purposes within the meaning of the Electoral Act 1997.”

Costs

Sipo added it does not intend to take any further steps with regard to the OSF grant, and “will be closing its investigation file in respect of this grant”.

The Commission also agreed to pay a contribution towards Amnesty’s legal costs.

Arising out of Sipo’s decision, Amnesty International Ireland had brought judicial review proceedings against both Sipo, Ireland and the Attorney General aimed at quashing the demand it returns the donation.

Amnesty claimed it and other NGOs were extremely concerned about the implications of the decision.

It feared the matter could be referred to gardaí, leading to a possible criminal prosecution, if it did not return the donation.

Amnesty said the purpose of the donation was to fund Amnesty’s 2016 campaign to increase public support for repealing the Eight Amendment, collaborate with other groups working on access to safe and legal abortion.

The campaign’s objectives included increasing support among politicians for the holding of a referendum on the Eighth Amendment and provide a human rights compliant abortion framework.

The campaign also included lobbying politicians and organising events and seminars for politicians before the 2016 general election aimed at having the Eighth Amendment repealed.

No referendum on the Eighth Amendment was planned or had been called when the donation was made it was claimed.

In 2016, media reports on leaked documents from OPF suggested that the funding was part of a strategy to force the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Sipo then wrote to Amnesty referring to obligations under the Electoral Act.

The Commission said it received information and confirmation from the foreign donor that the monies were for explicitly political purposes.

Amnesty’s lawyers said the OSF disputed that it provided written confirmation that the donation was for political purposes, and said that Sipo seemed to base its decision on an internal document for discussion that was made public after OSF was hacked by Russians.

In a statement following the decision, Amnesty said it was pleased the case had been resolved, and the decision has been quashed. It said that it was vindicated in its decision to challenge the decision.

“Our primary concern has always been and remains with the law. The vague wording and overly broad application of the Electoral Act, which imposes restrictions and onerous reporting obligations on ‘third parties’ who accept donations over €100 for ‘political purposes’.  It imposes a blanket ban on overseas donations and very severe limits on domestic donations.”

“The problem is that ‘political purposes’ is so broadly defined that it can include the general advocacy work of a wide range of human rights and other organisations. We believe this law contravenes Ireland’s obligations under international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of association and expression.”

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Aodhan O Faolain

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