The law and funding of Irish NGOs

 

Sir, – On August 3rd, your editorial “Irish Times view on Sipo and Amnesty International settlement: Legislative flaws exposed” highlighted the Standards in Public Office’s own reservations about the Electoral Act and called for “urgent” reform of the legislation.

Yet, on January 16th, your editorial suggested that this flawed law is a “price worth paying”.

No evidence is presented to explain your apparent U-turn on the issue. Indeed, there is no evidence cited to support your editorial’s suggestion that international funding of advocacy NGOs in Ireland poses a serious risk to the integrity of our democratic system.

Instead, a false equivalence seems to be drawn between illicit funding of elections and referenda by foreign intelligence agencies or vested commercial interests, and funding from international charitable foundations which is openly declared and accounted for by NGOs.

The flaw in the Electoral Act was introduced in 2001 when a new section intended to deal with “third parties” during elections and referendum campaigns, was extended to any group receiving donations for any “political purpose”. The term political purpose was so loosely defined and the criteria for registration so poorly drafted that the Standards in Public Office Commission argued that the provision was posing difficulties for it and those it was expected to regulate.

It means, for example, that a cancer charity could not receive funding from an overseas trust (and faces tight control on domestic donations) to campaign for higher taxes on cigarettes or to limit the sale of alcohol. However, the tobacco and drinks industries can spend as much of their own revenues influencing policy-makers with minimal regulation.

The balance between protecting civil society freedoms and government from undue interference is not found by placing draconian funding restrictions on NGOs. Rather it will be arrived at by declaring where funding comes from and how it was spent, and effective but proportionate regulation of elections, referendums, lobbyists and political parties. – Yours, etc,

JOHN DEVITT,

Chief Executive,

Transparency

International Ireland,

Middle Abbey Street,

Dublin 1.

Sir, – Amnesty and other NGOs want the Electoral Act changed so that they can receive international funding to “tip the balance back in favour of the ordinary person” (Letters, January 18th).

As an ordinary person, I am not convinced.

Take the case of the hedge fund billionaire George Soros who has in the past funded Amnesty. Mark Malloch Browne, one of his oldest friends, has described him as follows: “George is the permanent campaigner but instead of having a gilet jaune and work boots, he’s got a very large cheque book and a liberal agenda and he never gives up” (Financial Times, December 12th).

Despite never seeking electoral office, Mr Soros has used his vast wealth to insert his radical ideas on open borders and unrestricted migration into debates that are polarising western societies.

We so-called “ordinary people” will be the losers if Irish democracy is allowed become the playground for billionaire political dilettantes. – Yours, etc,

KARL MARTIN,

Bayside,

Dublin 13.