Civil Society Voice

Posted on
27 May 2019
by Sarah Monaghan, Campaigns Manager at The Wheel

We all value our freedom. We all value living in a democracy. In the charity, community and voluntary sector we rely on this democratic freedom to make our voice heard and advocate for change.

As a sector we are in the business of seeking change. Many of us work with the most vulnerable and marginalised people who rely on our representation to support and advocate for better systems, better legislation and a better understanding that leads to a better society.

At The Wheel’s Annual Summit on 23 May we heard from a panel of representatives who have formed a Coalition for Civil Society Freedom, which is comprised of Amnesty International Ireland, Irish Council of Civil Liberties, Uplift, Transparency International, Front Line Defenders and The Wheel. The panel concentrated on the topic of civil society voice and how it is currently being threatened by the unintended consequences of the Electoral Act.

The Electoral Act was amended in 2001 with the intention of preventing improper foreign and political influence over elections in Ireland. It prevents any organisation from accepting a donation from an International body if their work can be deemed to be “political” by impacting on public policy. It also imposes restrictions and extensive reporting requirements on all domestic donations. Under the amended act organisations, deemed to be engaging in “political activity” which impacts on public policy, are unable to accept the following:

  • Donations from foreign sources
  • Anonymous donations of more than €100
  • Cash donations of more than €200
  • Donations of more than €2,500 from one source.

The full list of restrictions on donations and “political” activity can be found here. However the wording does not specify that these restrictions be confined to elections or referenda and can be interpreted to incorporate any activity, conducted at any time, that could be deemed to have the purpose of impacting on public policy. These are enforced by significant criminal offences; the penalty for non-compliance for a third party could be as high as a €25,000 fine and three years’ imprisonment.

The amended Electoral Act has had the effect of hindering the voice and work of civil society. There have been several examples of organisations facing investigation and legal challenge as a result of enquiries lodged to SIPO about their work and receipt of donated funds. Education Equality were ordered by the Standards in Public Offices Commission (SIPO) – who apply the provisions of the Electoral Acts – to return part of a €10,000 seed funding donated by the Humanist Association of Ireland, where the funding was domestic and not related to a political election, but rather to advocate for equal access to education with the removal of the baptism barrier.  

Not only did this have a negative impact in terms of the legal and financial threat but it had a devastating impact on the volunteers working within a small organisation to enact change. The stress and time required to deal with an investigation from SIPO diverted precious energy and resources away from the work at hand. Scenarios like these have been replicated across many other organisations, many of whom are small and working on a voluntary basis to make society a better place for us all to live in. It has had the effect of leaving organisations nervous and reticent to engage in their work from fear of falling foul of the current uneven, and unclear application of the act.

Further than restricting donations and therefore restricting organisations activity in progressing changes to public policy, the amended Electoral Act has a number of other negative consequences for advocacy by civil society organisations. The act places an upper limit of donations from one source of €2500 which includes, and can be solely comprised of, donations of goods and services. If applied in this way, this would limit any voluntary contribution of time and work to a value of €2500 per annum – if labour was priced on minimum wage standards this would equate to approximately 5 hours voluntary work a week.

We all know that many of the organisations doing vital work in the sector do so on a voluntary basis – over 300,000 people volunteer in the sector annually. Boards of Trustees within the sector are voluntary and in reality, the vast majority of these volunteers, supporting people and communities all over Ireland, volunteer for a lot more than 5 hours a week. They do this because they are passionate about the issues that affect us, and believe in people powered change. Our active participation in society is important, and all people, whether voluntary or paid staff, should be able to contribute to making Ireland a better place. As a sector, our time should be concentrated on people rather than solely on the enforcement of regulation which diverts attention away from this.

Another unintended consequence of the amended Electoral Act is the “chilling effect” its application potentially has on organisations relationship with funders. Organisations engaging in advocacy to influence policy, including at local authority level, cannot accept donations from International philanthropic funders and need to abide by the funding restrictions applied to domestic funders. In practice this has had the effect of many funders pulling funding from what has been made into a “risky” area. Naturally this could have devastating effects on organisations in the charity, community and voluntary sector who are already under funded and struggling to survive amid lack of full resourcing, to include multi-annual funding, compliance costs, rising insurance costs and operational expenses, from the state.

The amendment to the Electoral Act has many unintended consequences on the charity, community and voluntary and social enterprise sector and has the potential to restrict our ability to work to our full ability in a people centered way. It has the potential to restrict our voice, which often advocates on behalf of those most marginalised in society, and to hinder our active participation if not dealt with now.

Luckily, the solution for this problem is an easy one. The first steps have already been taken and a Coalition for Civil Society Freedom was set up over two years ago. The Coalition has the support of over 60 civil society organisations and is led by Amnesty International Ireland, Irish Council of Civil Liberties, Uplift, Transparency International, The Wheel and Front Line Defenders. Senator Lynn Ruane is set to bring a bill to reform the Electoral Act to the Seanad and has received cross party support.

We, at The Wheel, hope to see this legislation for reform progress so as to empower our sector to continue their work while keeping the focus on those they help, support and advocate for. These organisations are not involved in party politics, pursuing a particular outcome in an election or referendum, but rather are carrying out their time-honoured duty of advocating for the people they serve and the causes they espouse through activities such as contributing to government consultations, supporting the development of a specific national policy or campaigning for the right to housing, or a living wage.

Civil society has always led the way in social change, and that civic space and active participation should be protected.