CIVICUS

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Ireland

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Last updated on 02.08.2018 at 15:12

Ireland-Overview

Generally, people in Ireland are free to form associations in order to advance collective interests, to gather peacefully in public places, and to debate and share ideas without interference.

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Regulator settles dispute with Amnesty Ireland over foreign funding

Regulator settles dispute with Amnesty Ireland over foreign funding

Following a high court review, Ireland's Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) has dropped its demand that Amnesty Ireland return EUR 137,000 in funding to the Open Societies Foundation.

Association

On 31st July 2018, the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) accepted that the process leading to the adoption of a decision in November 2017, which requested Amnesty International to return a donation from the Open Society Foundations (OSF), was “procedurally flawed”. Fiona Crowley from Amnesty International explained that “the decision by the High Court makes no determination of the lawfulness of the OSF grant, but did agree to close its investigation into the grant”. SIPO also agreed to support part of the costs of the proceedings.

In reaction, Amnesty International Ireland wrote

“Amnesty International Ireland has been vindicated in our decision to challenge the decision. [...] However, our primary concern has always been and remains with the law. [...] We believe this law contravenes Ireland’s obligations under international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of association and expression. This is, of course, a matter for the Government and not the Commission. The Government must urgently act to amend this law to ensure it no longer obstructs the work of civil society groups and violates civil society freedoms.”

As previously reported to the CIVICUS Monitor, the Electoral Act bans donations to "third parties" for “political purposes” from abroad and limits donations up to EUR 100 Euro from abroad. Recently, the broad definition of “political purposes” was applied to advocacy work conducted by CSOs in Ireland. The report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights on challenges for organisations working on human rights in the EU also found that “investigations are often triggered by complaints to the regulatory body, so enforcement can inadvertently be selectively targeted”.

After a heated campaign during Ireland's recent abortion referendum, the issue of reforming the Electoral Law came back on civil society’s agenda ahead of further referendums expected in the coming months. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Wheel, Front Line Defenders, Transparency International and Uplift launched a petition to request the reform of the law:

“The gagging effect of the Electoral Acts means many important voices are not being heard by decision-makers and politicians. There’s a risk that increasingly only the wealthy and those who do not need to seek donations to make their views known will get to have their voices heard.”

In July 2018, SIPO's annual report addressed the issue of reviewing the Electoral Act, stressing the need to change the notion of “third parties” based on the amount of expenditure rather than the source of the donation, the establishment of an Electoral Commission, and the inclusion of “regulation of digital means of influence in an electoral or referendum campaign”. Similar conclusions and recommendations also emerged in the report by the Inter-departmental group on the security of Ireland’s electoral process and disinformation which assessed the “substantive issues arising from recent experiences in other democratic countries with regard to the use of social media by external, anonymous or hidden third parties".

While civil society organisations in Ireland welcomed the recommendations in the two reports, some also highlighted that they fell short of addressing the need to clearly define “political purposes”. ICCL commented:

“While at one level, the report emphasises the importance of hearing from civil society in order to preserve Ireland’s democratic foundations, the report fails to address this key issue which has been highlighted by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency as an example of electoral regulation having an unintended and disproportionate effect on free speech and freedom of association.”

Reform of the Electoral Law, they said, should involve civil society at all stages. ICCL also added: “We believe that the Electoral Commission must be properly equipped to enforce election regulations in the online sphere and to protect individuals’ privacy rights including the right to be free from unlawful micro-targeting in online advertising.”

Expression

An undercover investigation broadcast in July 2018 by Channel 4's Dispatches programme revealed that the social media giant Facebook is failing to adequately moderate violent and disturbing content on its platform. Facebook, which has its European headquarters in Dublin, was accused of failing to take down videos including one of an adult kicking a child, which had been left online for six years despite repeated complaints from users. The hidden camera investigation showed Facebook employees justifying the failure to take down content by saying:

“If you start censoring too much, then people lose interest in the platform … It’s all about making money at the end of the day".

Ireland, which is the European home for several large internet companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, AirBnB and PayPal, has heard an increase in calls for stricter regulation and oversight of social media platforms and for the establishment of a social media watchdog. These calls have come from a variety of places, including from elected representatives who held a parliamentary hearing into the matter on 1st August 2018 during which Facebook executives from the company's Irish office apologised for the failure to properly moderate violent and disturbing content.

Association

Everyone has the right to freely form and join an association in Ireland.

Everyone has the right to freely form and join an association in Ireland. The law recognises many different types of associations, including cooperatives, religious organisations, trade unions and foundations. Civil society organisations can choose to register or remain unincorporated. In order to be eligible for charitable status, an organisation must serve the public benefit, a term that is defined by the Charities Act of 2009. However, the Act fails to recognise the promotion of human rights as ‘a purpose that is beneficial to the community’, thus technically excluding these type of organisations from registering as charities. All charities must be registered with the Charities Regulatory Authority (CRA) in order to operate in the country and the legislation penalises the failure to do so. Although organisations are able to receive foreign funding, the Electoral Act restricts national donations and completely bans foreign donations for certain types of advocacy and campaign work. An amendment to the Act in 2001 regulates third parties, defined as any other entity besides a political party that receives money for a political purpose. The definition of political purpose is broad and could potentially impact all non-governmental organisations in the country. A further concern stems from rules governing state funds received by local groups involved in providing community-based services. Civil society advocates highlight threats to the sector’s ability to conduct independent advocacy because of grant agreements which prevent state funds being used to ‘obtain changes in the law or related government policies or to persuade people to adopt a particular view on a question of public policy.’

Peaceful Assembly

People in Ireland are able to gather peacefully in public. The constitution guarantees this right but states that legislation may limit this right in order to control ‘a breach of the peace or to be a danger or nuisance to the general public and to prevent or control meetings in the vicinity of either House of the Oireachtas’.

People in Ireland are able to gather peacefully in public. The constitution guarantees this right but states that legislation may limit this right in order to control ‘a breach of the peace or to be a danger or nuisance to the general public and to prevent or control meetings in the vicinity of either House of the Oireachtas’. There is no notification requirement and a demonstration can be restricted on the grounds of concern for morality. While large-scale protests are common and respected in practice, a protest movement against the imposition of charges on the use of water has brought the state and demonstrators into conflict. Following a water charges demonstration in Jobstown, Dublin in 2014 during which Ireland’s deputy prime minister was trapped in a police car, 19 people, including a 17-year-old, were charged with false imprisonment. Critics allege that the charges, which carry a life sentence upon conviction, are politically-motivated and amount to the state’s criminalisation of the right to protest. Protests on water charges and a range of other social and political issues continue to take place regularly in Ireland. In 2016, thousands of people gathered in Dublin calling for the repeal of restrictive abortion laws in the country.

Expression

Press freedom is guaranteed in Ireland’s 1937 constitution and is generally respected in practice.

Press freedom is guaranteed in Ireland’s 1937 constitution and is generally respected in practice. In 2009, Ireland adopted the Defamation Act repealing criminal defamation laws. However, blasphemy is an offence under the Irish Constitution. Media ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few business people, which is a cause of concern for civil society as it is a threat to pluralism and democracy. People in Ireland can access public information through the 2014 Freedom of Information Act, which replaced earlier legislation. However, laws requiring police officers to obtain authorisation before speaking to the press limit this right in practice. Journalists and media workers can generally work freely, and attacks on them are rare.