The letter sent to the Taoiseach by 60 civil society organisations about what is clearly a hole in the 1997 Electoral Act will not, it is to be hoped, be put in the file marked IBU — Interesting But Unimportant.
Co-ordinated by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), the letter highlights what must have been an unintended consequence of legislation which quite properly outlaws large, anonymous and foreign donations to election candidates and political parties. Money talks, but it shouldn’t be able to a buy a democracy.
The ICCL points out, however, that the law is being applied also to non-party political groups and organisations which run perfectly legitimate human rights and social justice campaigns, and which provide politicians with information they might not easily get from their own supporters and civil servants. It cites an example: the Standards in Public Office Commission ordered Amnesty to return a donation made to its ‘My Body, My Rights’ campaign, judging it to be a donation for political purposes.
The ruling was, eventually, reversed by the High Court, which was an expensive recourse that shouldn’t have been necessary. Such a campaign is self-evidently political, just as almost everything about the rules societies make for themselves is political, but this one — control and criminalisation of sexuality and reproduction — isn’t party political.
As we have been highlighting this week, 2018 in Ireland has been the year of the grassroot activists, the people who on issues ranging to abortion law reform and housing to migrants’ rights and environmental sustainability have organised, marched and waved flags to ask for change on issues that transcend conventional party politics. These are voices that could be silenced if the glitch in the Electoral Act isn’t fixed, leaving the field open only to lobby and campaign groups that are wealthy enough to say thanks but no thanks when offered donations.