The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has thrown its weight behind calls from NGOs for an urgent change to the law on donations amid fears it is being used to muzzle them.
Chief Commissioner Emily Logan said recent interpretations of the 1997 Electoral Act could be having a "chilling effect" on the funding and activities of organisations involved in legitimate advocacy.
In a submission to the ministers in charge of electoral reform, Minister of State John Paul Phelan and his senior colleague Minister Eoghan Murphy, the Commission called for the law to be reformed to include stronger protections for the work of NGOs and clearer definitions of what kind of funding was permitted and with what requirements.
"The Commission is concerned that the current legislation may serve to undermine the legitimate advocacy work and activity of civil society groups whose work is at the heart of our democracy," Ms Logan said.
"Repressive measures are increasingly being used in Europe and globally to shrink the space in which human rights organisations can function.
"Ireland must not, through an unintended consequence of legislative change, give succour to this kind of approach and must instead seek to protect the rights of those who face the greatest barriers to justice."
The Act was introduced to try to bring greater transparency to donations to politicians and political candidates but it was amended in 2001 to include a broader definition of donations for political purposes which potentially included donations to any individual or group working to influence government policy.
The rules meant any donation of €100 or more had to be registered, no donation of more than €2,500 could be accepted and no donations could be accepted from abroad if deemed to be given for political purposes.
Concerns were expressed at the time that the definition was too broad and the requirements too onerous as many NGOs lobby governments to bring about new legal protections or assert rights under existing law without intending any direct impact on the political make-up of governments.
But it was only when opponents of the Irish branch of Amnesty International and Equate, a group campaigning for an end to religious involvement in schools, made complaints about the organisations to donations oversight body, SIPO, in the last two years that the effect of the law became clear.
Both groups were cleared of breaching the regulations, although Amnesty had to go to the High Court to secure that ruling, but the experience led to the winding up of Equate which said it found it impossible to fundraise while under investigation.
Last month the Irish Council for Civil Liberties submitted an open letter to the Taoiseach signed by 60 NGOs calling for the law to be changed. Senator Lynn Ruane also raised the matter with Eoghan Murphy in the Seanad last November.
The Minister said at the time he shared the concerns expressed and the issued would be explored as part of plans to establish an electoral commission to oversee all aspects of elections and political funding.