Political donations: Amnesty’s defiance

The human rights group’s refusal to comply with a SIPO directive is cause for concern

Amnesty International Ireland's refusal to comply with a directive from the Standards in Public Office commission (Sipo) that it should return a donation it received from billionaire George Soros's Open Society Foundation is a cause for serious concern. The €137,000 donation, provided in 2016 to fund Amnesty's campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment and to introduce laws providing for abortion in Ireland, was originally deemed permissible by the commission. However, that decision was reversed when the commission was made aware the foundation's purpose in donating the money had been "specifically political".

Some civic organisations have expressed alarm at the manner in which the relevant legislation is now being interpreted by the commission. It has been pointed out in the past – including by the commission itself – that the law’s wording is vague and open to a range of interpretations. Amnesty’s director, Colm O’Gorman, argues the legislation has recently been “weaponised” against a number of campaigning and advocacy organisations, including his own.

No organisation has the right to arrogate to itself the decision on whether it will obey a directive from a statutory body

A clear and compelling argument exists for the legislation to be improved. But many people who are sympathetic to that broader case will be less impressed by Amnesty's refusal to return the donation. They may also be startled by O'Gorman's declaration that Irish law in this area is more draconian than Russia's or Hungary's, and that both Amnesty Ireland and the anti-abortion Iona Institute should be free to receive as much funding as they wish from foreign donors, so long as it is publicly declared.

Amnesty can challenge the legality of the Sipo ruling in the courts, a course it presumably intends to pursue. It and other similarly affected organisations are also free to campaign for legislative reform. But no organisation has the right to arrogate to itself the decision on whether it will obey a directive from a statutory body. That is not a matter for Amnesty to decide, nor is it a legitimate form of civil disobedience. The organisation loses credibility when it tries to portray it as such.