Ireland: Steps to set up Electoral Commission amid calls for reform of restrictive election laws

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Calls for reform of the Electoral Law used to restrict CSOs

In May 2019, the Independent Senator Lynn Ruane launched a bill for the reform of the Electoral Act. The Senator’s bill was co-sponsored by nine other senators and supported by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), Education Equality and Amnesty International.

Senator Ruane said:

“I’m delighted to introduce this reform to support the voices of community and advocacy groups. Ordinary citizens organising together to agitate for progressive change have transformed Ireland in recent years. However, a change to the Electoral Acts made in 2001 has led to a chilling effect on the valid advocacy work of these same groups.”

The CIVICUS Monitor previously reported about the problematic provisions of the current electoral law on restricting CSOs as it bans donations to "third parties" for “political purposes” from abroad and limits donations up to 100 Euro from abroad. With such broad definition of “political purposes” the regulation was applied to restrict advocacy work conducted by CSOs in Ireland. A coalition of NGOs has been campaigning to reform the Electoral Act in full respect of freedom of association and expression.

Amnesty International, directly affected by the law, argued that the “Even though the Act was not intended to undermine civil society, its broad wording has clearly been used to silence NGOs working on a range of equality and rights issues.”

Public consultations completed on the establishment of Electoral Commission

Between late December 2018 and 15th March 2019, the government carried out a public consultation on the establishment of an Electoral Commission in Ireland. The public consultations aimed at defining the structure and functions of the body.

It is envisaged that the role of the Commission will be to oversee elections and referendums, the registration of political parties and the registration of voters, as well as monitoring of political spending.

Organisations also recommended that the mandate of the proposed Electoral Commission should include a reform of the discussed above controversial Electoral Act. The Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) also supported this call and stated that the current electoral laws are “out-of-date, incoherent and have a serious lack of teeth when it comes to enforcement”.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties expressed also support to the establishment of an Electoral Commission for “strengthening the cohesiveness and transparency of electoral regulation” and said:

“We also believe that the introduction of establishing legislation will afford an opportunity to address existing deficiencies in the Electoral Act, including the difficulties surrounding the regulation of civil society advocacy.”

Additionally, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Ireland's national human rights and equality institution, proposed the Electoral Commission should also be mandated “to address the use of discriminatory rhetoric and hate speech in political campaigning by developing and promoting standards in political discourse during elections and referendums.”

Media slander against CSOs

On 9th February 2019, the Sunday Times, a British national newspaper, published an article titled “Soros gave €50,000 to civil liberties chief” on the first page which has been denounced for being unfair and misleading. The article concerned a grant funding that the ICCL received from the Open Society Foundations (OSF). In a response, on 17th February 2019, the ICCL Executive Director, Liam Herrick wrote a letter to the paper contesting the claims of the article, saying it contained “a number of inaccuracies and misrepresentations”. He specifically addressed the following inaccuracies in the article: The Open Society Foundations (OSF) donation was to the organisation not personally to the chief executive as the article implied; The donation was used to fund organisational and staff development, including training and “not for personal use or at personal discretion”; The impression was given that the funds were granted in a manner which violated the Electoral Act – which ICCL Executive Director said was untrue.

In the context of the use of the ban on foreign donations for “political purposes” under the Electoral law to restrict advocacy work conducted by CSOs, such statements which spread incorrect information can be harmful to the work and reputation of CSOs.

Peaceful Assembly

A new report published on 26th June 2019 by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) raises concerns of a number of restriction on peaceful protests. The findings in the report are based on meetings and national consultations on the status of the right to protest in Ireland, carried out between 19th June and 22nd June 2019, by the ICCL, supported by International Network of Civil Liberties Organisations (INCLO).

Among the trends observed, the ICCL report highlighted intimidation and harassment of protesters. The ICCL also found that the right to protest has been restricted by law enforcement agents and the judiciary by prohibiting the full exercise to the right of protest for gatherings that "do not meet traditional notion of protest" such as spontaneous protests that may occur when there are perceived rights violations. The report also drew attention to the role of non-state actors in policing protest, including private security companies and the lack of regulations for private security forces deployed during assemblies. Similarly, the report denounced the lack of clear guidelines and training for state security forces policing protests.

The treatment of detained protesters also emerged as a key concern highlighted in the report. The practice of strip-searches and denial of food in police detention was a cause of serious alarm from the report’s consultations.

Liam Herrick, the Director of ICCL, said:

“The salient point for us has been that, while the government and An Garda Síochána [Ireland's police service] are supportive of large protests taking place on the main thoroughfares of Ireland, when it comes to protesters living on the margins of society or protesting outside of the media spotlight, the garda and state response can be much more heavy-handed”.

To address these restrictions on peaceful assembly, the ICCL called on the authorities to address the flowing recommendations:

  • Police (An Garda Siochana, AGS) and the judiciary to interpret the Public Order Act in accordance with established international standards on the right to protest, including a presumption in favour of protests.
  • Make human rights training focused on non-discrimination and human dignity mandatory for police. Any violations of these principles should be promptly and effectively investigated and remedied.
  • Ensure easy, prompt, effective and practical access of the public to information related to protest.
  • The government should adopt an expanded definition of what constitutes a protest to avoid instances in which some protests, which do not meet the “traditional” notions of a protest, are prohibited and the full enjoyment of the right to protest is infringed.
  • Accountability for AGS misconduct or violations of human rights, whether through disciplinary proceedings or prosecutions for serious offences.