By Ann O'Loughlin
Amnesty International's Irish section has launched a High Court challenge to an order of the Standards in Public Office Commission that it return a donation of €137,000 for a campaign to increase support for a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment.
The donation was made in August 2015 by Swiss-based foundation the Open Society Foundations (OSF), for the Irish-based strand of Amnesty's international "My Body, My Rights" campaign.
The objectives of the campaign included increasing support among politicians for the holding of a referendum on the Eight Amendment and providing a human rights-compliant abortion framework.
The campaign included lobbying politicians, and organising events and seminars for politicians prior to the 2016 General Election aimed at having the Eight Amendment repealed.
Last November, the Standards in Public Office Commission directed Amnesty to return the monies after finding the donation was prohibited under Section 23 A2 of the 1997 Electoral Act, as it was deemed to be a donation for political purposes.
Amnesty denies the funds were used for political purposes and says the decision is flawed, and should be set aside.
As a result, Amnesty International's Irish section has brought proceedings against both the Standards in Public Office Commission, Ireland and the Attorney General seeking to quash the decision.
It also seeks several declarations including that the Standards in Public Office Commission acted in error of law, in excess of its jurisdiction, misdirected itself as to the interpretation of electoral law, has failed to give adequate reasons for its decision and has acted irrationally and unreasonably.
It further seeks declarations that it should not have to repay the monies, that the Standards in Public Office Commission breached both Articles 40. 3 and 43 of the Irish Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights and EU law.
Today, Brian Murray SC for Amnesty said the challenge raises many complex legal issues concerning the interpretation of the Electoral Act.
"Amnesty and other NGOs are extremely concerned about the implications of the decision," Counsel said.
Counsel said the purpose of the donation was to fund Amnesty's 2016 campaign to increase public support for repealing the 8th Amendment, and collaborate with other groups working on access to safe and legal abortion.
No referendum on the Eight was planned or had been called when the donation was made, Counsel said.
Counsel said in 2016 media reports on leaked documents from OSF suggested that the funding was part of a strategy to force the repeal of the Eight Amendment. The Standards in Public Office Commission then wrote to Amnesty referring to obligations under the Electoral Act.
Counsel pointed out Amnesty said the donation was not for political purposes.
However the Commission said it received information and confirmation from the foreign donor the monies were for explicitly political purposes.
OSF has disputed that it provided written confirmation that the donation was for political purposes, and said the Standards in Public Office Commission seemed to be basing its decision on an internal document for discussion that was made public after OSF was hacked by Russians, Counsel said.
Amnesty fears the matter could be referred to the Garda, leading to a possible criminal prosecution, if if does not not return the monies.
It also fears reputational damage and financial hardship as Amnesty does not have any significant reserves. The return of the monies would have to come out of its current budget for 2018, Counsel added.
Permission to bring the challenge was granted, on an ex-parte basis, by Mr Justice Seamus Noonan.
The case will come back before the court in April.