Thursday, 14 January 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Standards in Public Office Commission
I greatly appreciate the opportunity to raise this extremely serious issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte and the Minister. When reports came out that Leave.EU had relocated or temporarily registered its location from Bristol to Waterford many people met the news with a sense of wry irony that an organisation that has spent the past number of years campaigning to leave the EU is seeking to remain within the EU in order to retain its favourable Internet rating and its brand.
Let us be under no illusion, however, this is an absolutely toxic brand. This group has wreaked absolute misery on the United Kingdom and around for many years. Beyond Brexit the group has traded an absolutely toxic brand of campaigns and politics, be it on immigration, on the relationship with the media or directed at personal individuals, including Ministers in our own Government. It also trades in senseless and baseless xenophobia the likes of which we in this country should not and do not have any time for.
When we look at this toxic brand of campaigning are we looking to see if the toxic brand of campaigning is being exported here? Is the group looking to locate themselves in Waterford to ascertain a flag of convenience and to maintain the prevalence in Internet searches and so much else? I have already raised a number of concerns with the relevant bodies at Irish and EU level with regard to the group's domain name registration and its accounts and status with the Revenue Commissioners, and crucially around the storage of data. This organisation has access to data of tens of thousands of individuals in the United Kingdom and beyond, and it must be ensured that these data are stored in a way that is compliant with the general data protection regulation, GDPR, even though the UK has left the EU.
When an organisation like this seeks to move around, even just as a flag of convenience or to export its toxic brand of campaigning, it absolutely requires a serious level of scrutiny by Government and by the authorities therein. I ask the Minister and the Department to give that level of scrutiny. This organisation trades in controversy and misery. The group has been levied with numerous fines in the United Kingdom for its campaigning activity, for its storage of data and for funding. The group has associations with quite dubious characters, inside and outside the organisation, which merit serious concern. The group is connected, directly and indirectly, with some of the scary events that unfolded in Washington DC last week and this should not be dismissed out of hand. While the people who run this organisation seek to mock those who question their authority and seek to dismiss any concerns, ultimately resorting to the level of insults one would not find in the schoolyard, we need to keep that level of scrutiny absolutely rigorous. We need to shine a light and put up a probe. I believe that this organisation is a threat to our democracy. It is a politically subversive organisation that, if it was allowed to gain a foothold in our democracy, would have a detrimental effect. We cannot dismiss this lightly. We must provide that scrutiny. I implore the Minister and the Government to make sure that Leave.EU, quite simply, is not welcome in Ireland.
I thank Deputy Richmond for raising this question. I hope my answer addresses the question the Deputy has asked. I am here to represent the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien.
As Members of the House will be aware, the Electoral Act 1997, as amended, provides the statutory framework for dealing with political donations and sets out the regulatory regime covering a wide range of interrelated issues such as the setting of limits of permissible donations, the prohibition of certain donations, the disclosure of donations and the registration of third parties who accept donations given for political purpose that exceed €100.
The Act also provides for the independent supervision of these provisions by the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, which has published a number of detailed guidance documents to clearly inform candidates standing for election, Members of the Oireachtas, members of the European Parliament, political parties, corporate donors and third parties of their obligations under the Act. At its very core, the Act has the objective of ensuring that there is transparency in how our political parties and the wider political system is funded, matters that are crucial to the functioning of our democracy. Important features of the legislation include relatively low donation thresholds, a prohibition on foreign donations and restrictions on the amounts that may be received from corporate donations.
Notwithstanding the existing legislative provision, the Government is committed to progress the commitment in the programme for Government to review our current electoral laws and the conduct of politics in Ireland to ensure that donations or resources from non-citizens outside the State are not being utilised to influence our elections and political process. We will legislate to prevent this if necessary. These matters are directly relevant to the political donations regime as provided for in the Act. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has stated in this House that he intends to bring forward an electoral reform Bill that will, among other matters, establish an independent statutory electoral commission by the end of this year. The general scheme of the Bill was published last week and was circulated for pre-legislative consideration. One of the functions that will be assigned to the electoral commission from the outset will be a policy research and advisory function that will inform and advise the Government and the Oireachtas in their consideration of reform of our electoral laws. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is of the view that one of the first items of research the commission could be asked to undertake would be a comprehensive review of the entire Electoral Act 1997. It is likely that such a review could be completed within a relatively short timeframe following the establishment of the commission.
I thank the Minister of State for the full and accurate reply, which certainly addressed some of my concerns. I appreciate that some of my concerns and the area I ask about do not fall under the remit of the Minister to whom this matter has been put forward. Some interesting points that will become very relevant in this regard have been made by the Minister on the role of corporate donations, of donation limits, of foreign donations and of influence outside the State on our electoral politics. I want to make sure they are in any review of the commission that may come forward. I have referred the organisation to SIPO. I hope the Minister of State will ask the Minister to also engage with SIPO where appropriate. I hope this will not just cover political parties, elected representatives and those seeking election, as mentioned by the Minister of State. It must also include campaign organisations and bodies, as well as campaign bodies that seek to base themselves in this State even though their activities are either stateless or, more pertinently in this account, are focused on a different jurisdiction. This is a real concern and I hope the Minister of State will engage with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien and with SIPO on this. This entity, which has an extremely dubious past in fundraising, in storing data and in the pure hate it spouts, is trying to relocate to the State for convenience or for opportunity.
We must ensure that the standards to which we hold all organisations already in the State are applied to this organisation. If it is unable to meet those standards, it should be closed down, shut down and told it is not welcome and should not to come back.
I thank Deputy Richmond for sharing the knowledge and the depth of understanding he has on this organisation. While my answer deals with electoral law, the issue of campaigning bodies is something I will bring back to the Minister. I will conclude by reading the Minister's remarks into the record. I again thank the Deputy for raising this important issue.
As already indicated, our political donation regime is designed to maintain transparency in respect of our political process and to ensure the integrity of our elections in order that they remain fair and free from any foreign or hidden influence. The Government is committed to reviewing our current electoral laws and the conduct of politics in Ireland to ensure donations and resources from non-citizens outside the State are not being utilised to influence our elections and political process. The electoral commission that is to be established will be able to contribute to such a review. I expect that any review will not only deliver a wide range of recommendations aiming to strengthen our electoral laws and ensure political donations and resources from non-citizens resident outside the State are not being used to influence our elections and democratic process, among other matters, but will also inform the further transfer of functions to the electoral commission.