Electoral Act and funding for advocacy

 

Sir, – We refer to Michael Nugent’s piece on the Electoral Act, in which he contends that the “Standards in Public Office law” is a good law (“Protecting democracy: Law on political funding must be made even stronger”, Opinion & Analysis, August 15th). We beg to differ. It is clear that the legislation, if applied as written, violates civil society freedoms and democratic norms.

The Electoral Act, as amended in 2001, has a fundamental flaw. It applies wide-ranging and extreme restrictions to sources of funding for advocacy with a “political purpose”. It defines such purposes so broadly as to effectively prohibit much of civil society’s engagement in policy-making. If applied in the manner Mr Nugent appears to favour it would close down many civil society organisations that advocate for social justice and that hold our political system to account.

The Electoral Act prohibits all foreign donations and all donations of more than €2,500 from a single source, for work with a “political purpose”. These restrictions, if implemented as written in the legislation, could make the State almost immune to challenge by groups of people who are affected by the decisions it makes.

Mr Nugent ignores the fact that in order to have our voices heard by those in power, ordinary people often need toorganise and fundraise. If we could not fundraise, we could not operate as professional and accountable organisations, carry out much-needed research and engagement with people about their experiences and needs, orcommunicate the results of that work with policy-makers and the public.

Civil society organisations are already subject to the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 which requires us to disclose details of our attempts to influence public policy.

The additional restrictions and burden placed on advocacy organisations by the Electoral Act, are not just disproportionate, they are utterly anti-democratic too.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has recently spoken about the need to ensure that Irish domestic law is aligned with our foreign policy principles. One of Irish Aid’s key pillars of work is to provide financial support to civil society advocacy groups abroad, so that marginalised voices are heard in public policy debates.

Mr Nugent correctly states that ICCL, Transparency International Ireland and Amnesty International favour amending the law so that it would apply to civil society only during elections and referendums.

Mr Nugent asserts that it is “old-fashioned and authoritarian to see democracy as being something that happens only during elections”. We contend that it is authoritarian to prohibit all significant funding for civil society’s attempts to get involved in policy-making in an effort to represent the voices of people who are not usually considered in the corridors of power.

Rather than “weakening” the law, our suggested change would strengthen democracy and ensure that Ireland complies with its international human rights and anti-corruption obligations, both of which commit Ireland to promotingthe participation of civil society in government decision-making.

Our suggested change would not be “a victory for big money political donations” because the Act would still apply to politicians and political parties at all times.

We agree that more transparency in relation to online advertising is necessary. We proposethat more transparency in relation to influencing elections and referendums, not more restrictions on fundraising, is also the answer to the problem posed by the 2001 amendment to the Electoral Act. – Yours, etc,

LIAM HERRICK,

Executive Director,

Irish Council

for Civil Liberties;

COLM O’GORMAN,

Executive Director,

Amnesty International

Ireland;

JOHN DEVITT,

Chief Executive,

Transparency

International Ireland.