The Wheel Joins Call for Protection of Civil Society

On Friday, 6 July, The Wheel joined four other civil society organisations to welcome the approval by the UN Human Rights Council of an Irish-led resolution on civil society space, and to call for the principles to be applied domestically. The resolution focuses on the importance of freedom of association and defending the rights of civil society to operate freely in democratic societies and is one of Ireland’s ‘flagship’ human rights priorities at the UN level.

The coalition of organisations - including the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, The Wheel, Transparency International Ireland, Front Line Defenders, and Uplift - say the threat to civil society is not restricted to other regions, and that in Ireland the application of the Electoral Acts, which prohibit any “foreign donations” for ill-defined “political purposes”, to civil society organisations is particularly problematic.

“Over the past year Irish civil society has experienced increasing difficulties with the application of financial restrictions, designed to prevent foreign interference in our elections, to the general work of civil society..."

For example, in 2017, Education Equality were ordered by the Standards in Public Offices Commission (SIPO) to return €10,000 in seed funding to the Humanist Association of Ireland. April Duff of Education Equality and Steve Rawson of the Humanist Association of Ireland will today speak about their case for the first time.

Director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), Liam Herrick, said:

“Over the past year, Irish civil society has experienced increasing difficulties with the application of financial restrictions, designed to prevent foreign interference in our elections, to the general work of civil society. We are particularly concerned that the third party provisions of the Electoral Acts were applied to Education Equality, where the funding was neither “foreign” nor “political”.

The provisions were originally aimed at preventing improper interference in the political process during referendums but their application, in this case, creates significant legal uncertainty for civil society organisations who seek to engage in public policy discussions.”

The keynote speaker at this event will be Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, one of Ireland’s great civic society leaders, who will speak about the essential role civil society organisations have in enriching our democracy and in informing our public policy. She will emphasise how important it is that we defend and protect that role at this time.

The problems identified by Irish civil society have been recognised internationally. In January of this year, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency highlighted problems that were being experienced within the EU. In countries such as Hungary, Poland and Romania, overt attempts by Government to curb dissent were identified. The agency also identified a number of states where laws and regulations presented indirect interferences with civil society freedoms, including Ireland. Unlike the position in Central Europe, where such policies are deliberate attempts to shut down dissent, in Ireland we face inadvertent and unintended consequences of poorly drafted legislation including, but not limited to, the Electoral Acts.

In response to the growing problem, ICCL has brought together this coalition of civil society organisations to call on the Irish Government to ensure that our international commitments are reflected in our own domestic laws.  We note that the UN resolution calls attention to the fact that any restrictions on funding for civil society actors, including so-called foreign funding, undermines the right to freedom of association and calls on states to ensure they are in compliance with their international commitments on this front.

Mr Herrick said:

“We applaud the DFAT for its ongoing commitment to civil society space at the UN and in Ireland’s foreign policy. It is a powerful statement of the value which Ireland attaches to the role of civil society in democracy. It says that public policy debate is too important to be left to politicians – ordinary citizens and community organisations must be allowed a voice in our public life.

We in Ireland are rightly proud of civic society leaders who play such an important role in enriching our democracy. ICCL and our partner organisations are calling on all organisations who value civil society to join with us in calling on the Irish Government to amend the Electoral Acts and to allow Ireland to lead the way as an example of good practice as well as a standard-setter.”

SIPOC’s statement with regard to flawed legislation can be found here:

http://www.sipo.ie/en/About-Us/Our-Policies/Review-of-Legislation/Review-of-Electoral-Acts/Introduction.html

ICCL has formed this coalition to call on the Government to amend the Irish Electoral Acts. The coalition will launch an official campaign for law reform in this and other areas in September.

ICCL is also working with CIVICUS, the international umbrella body for civil society, in carrying out comparative research which will look at models of regulation from comparable countries which strike an appropriate balance between campaign finance regulation and freedom of association. This will be published in the autumn.