Tuesday, 14 May 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
Before I make my main point I wish to pay my respects to Fidelma Doonan, an usher in the Houses, whose brother died suddenly yesterday. He happens to also be my nephew's grandad. That is how I became aware of it and I thought it would be nice to pay my respects to Fidelma.
I wish to move an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 19 would be taken before No. 1. Today, I intend to introduce the Electoral (Civil Society Freedom) (Amendment) Bill 2019 to the Seanad. The Bill aims to fix an urgent problem with the Electoral Acts, which currently sees valid political advocacy by civil society organisations and community groups treated as electoral activity by the Standards in Public Office Commission. As a result, it attaches disproportionately high, stringent and unfair financial declaration requirements to the work. The interference by the State in the political lobbying activities of civil society groups was an unintended consequence of an amendment made to the Electoral Acts 18 years ago. The amendment was made to the Bill responsible in the Seanad during a Committee Stage debate on 14 June 2001. It is an urgent issue that has seen some civil society groups forced to close their doors in the face of the high compliance standards required, such as Education Equality, a group of concerned parents who came together to work for secular education. We must support groups of ordinary people who want to organise together to agitate for positive change and yet the laws just get in the way. Ireland is a world leader in civil society advocacy, including to the UN Human Rights Council and the European Union, yet European Union fundamental rights agencies and the Standards in Public Office Commission criticise the law domestically. It undermines us internationally and opens us up to charges of hypocrisy and needs reform.In a Commencement debate in the Seanad on 29 November last year the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, admitted that he was aware of the problem and the concerns expressed and saw its potential resolution within the process to set up a new electoral commission. However, this process could feasibly take years to come to fruition, whereas the current issue needs to be resolved in a timely fashion. That is why I am tabling the Bill today. I thank colleagues in the Civil Engagement group, the Independent group, Sinn Féin and the Labour Party for co-sponsoring the Bill which I hope to see receive cross-party support in the House in the near future. The problem has been caused by bad legislation and has damaged Ireland's vibrant civil society space. It is our responsibility as legislators to fix it.