Sipo calls for law to stop foreign meddling in Irish polls

No spending limits or regulations in place, warns watchdog

Sipo warns unregulated nature of social media campaigns allows “foreign actors to influence Irish elections and referendums with potentially significant consequences”. Photograph: iStock

Sipo warns unregulated nature of social media campaigns allows “foreign actors to influence Irish elections and referendums with potentially significant consequences”. Photograph: iStock

 

An electoral commission needs to be established and legislation introduced to deal with digital political campaigns financed from outside the State, according to the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo).

The commission has warned that the unregulated nature of social media campaigns allows “foreign actors to influence Irish elections and referendums with potentially significant consequences”.

Sipo monitors compliance of politicians, public servants, public bodies and lobbyists with the Ethics in Public Office Acts and the Electoral Act. It deals with complaints, undertakes investigations, monitors donations, State financing of political parties and the registration of third parties and corporate donors.

It called for spending limits to be introduced in referendum campaigns as well as elections and warned that with the likelihood of “several referendums in the coming months” there were no spending limits and no regulation of “foreign influence” in the Irish political process.

Chairman of the commission Mr Justice Daniel O’Keefe expressed concern about the potential impacts of foreign influence in the Irish political process because of lack of regulation of spending and of digital campaigns.

Mr Justice O’Keefe noted that “the Electoral Act 1997 is silent on expenditure on referendums, with neither expenditure limits nor disclosures contemplated by the Act”.

He pointed out that since the Act was implemented “the landscape of political engagement has changed” with the internet and social media “now featuring heavily in any campaign”.

And the commission also “notes with concern that individuals and organisations based outside Ireland may fund political advertising or launch digital campaigns financed outside the State.

“As no legislative framework currently exists to address these matters it would appear that an important and continually evolving tool in modern Irish political discourse [ie the internet] is unregulated.

“This allows for foreign actors to influence Irish elections and referendums with potentially significant consequences.”

Allowance

It also said that leaders of eight political parties last year received a total of €7,629,193 under the Parliamentary Activities Allowance Act. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, Solidarity People Before Profit, Independents4Change, the Social Democrats and the Green Party qualified.

Independent TDs received a total of €716,049 under the leaders’ provision while Independent senators received €308,660.

In its 2017 annual report, published on Thursday, the commission also revealed that the tax compliance certificate of a senior public official was only provided 15 years after appointment even though it is a legal requirement to do so within nine months, according to Sipo.

The organisation is currently investigating 41 cases where appointees to senior positions in the public service failed to comply with the 2001 Public Office Act. The unidentified official’s case came to light following a survey by Sipo of public bodies.

Sipo said some public bodies cite “data-protection legislation” as a reason not to provide information on appointments and the commission described the current legal position as “dysfunctional”.

Sipo is also still pursuing Independent senator Brian Ó Dómhnaill for legal costs it was awarded from his High Court action taken when Sipo investigated a complaint against him in 2012 for travel and subsistence claims made while a member of Donegal County Council and of Udarás na Gaeltachta.