Irish Times view on Sipo and Amnesty International settlement: Legislative flaws exposed

Important question of how to prevent potential manipulation of public opinion by external sources must be addressed

Amnesty International Ireland executive director Colm O’Gorman. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Amnesty International Ireland executive director Colm O’Gorman. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

Weaknesses in the legislation governing donations from outside the State to civil society groups involved in political campaigns have been exposed by a High Court case this week. As part of an agreed settlement, the Standards in Public Office (Sipo) Commission withdrew its demand that Amnesty International Ireland should return a €137,000 donation from a George Soros-funded philanthropic organisation. Sipo accepted that the process leading to its decision in November 2017 to order the return of the funds was “procedurally flawed”.

Sipo itself has been pointing out flaws in electoral legislation for years. That was repeated as recently as last week along with a call for the establishment of an electoral commission. In the wake of the High Court settlement, the Government said plans to establish an electoral commission will be brought to Cabinet in the autumn.

The Amnesty case hinged on whether a donation to it in August 2015 by the Open Society Foundations contravened the 1997 Electoral Act which prohibits foreign donations from third-party organisations for “political purposes”. Amnesty argued that the grant – with which Sipo had no issue in 2016 – was not for “political purposes” but was for “a human rights purpose”. It was used to fund its “My Body My Rights” campaign to increase support for the holding of a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Amnesty said the money was not used during the referendum campaign itself and that no referendum had been called or was planned at the time the donation was made.

While the case has again highlighted flaws in the current legislation, the important question of how to prevent the potential manipulation of public opinion by external sources still needs to be addressed. There is a balance to be struck between the legitimate rights of civil society groups to wage campaigns for constitutional or legislative change and the protection of the democratic process from inappropriate outside interference. The law needs to be amended as a matter of urgency to ensure this balance is achieved.

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