Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Political Donations: Motion
"That Seanad Éireann: notes:- the decision of Sinn Féin to accept a donation in excess of €4 million from the estate of William Hampton;calls on Sinn Féin:
- that the maximum donation allowable under Irish electoral law is €2,500 and that this donation to Sinn Féin is more than 1,600 times the maximum allowable donation;
- that the will of Mr. Hampton specifically states that the donation is for ‘the political party in the Republic of Ireland known at this time as Sinn Féin’;
- that the acceptance of this donation by Sinn Féin is deeply problematic and at best is at variance with the spirit of Irish electoral law;
- that there appears to be no meaningful manner in which to ensure that research, social media and political staff funded in Northern Ireland by this donation are not employed in this jurisdiction;- to immediately return the amount of the donation in excess of the limit of €2,500 to the estate of William Hampton;calls on the Government:
- to lay a statement before the Seanad no later than 31st December, 2020 outlining how it will ensure that no resources funded by its operations in Northern Ireland are utilised in this jurisdiction;- to update the electoral laws to ensure that if a political party is registered in this State and in another jurisdiction, that registration in this State requires that it accepts no donation greater than those allowable under the Standards in Public Office Commission guidelines;requests:
- to expand the Standards in Public Office Commission remit to cover such matters;- the Standards in Public Office Commission to furnish a report to the Seanad by 31st December, 2020 outlining how it will ensure that no resources funded by Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland are utilised in any way in this jurisdiction."
I propose to share my time with Senators Currie and McGahon.
I am pleased to propose this motion on behalf of the Fine Gael group in the Seanad. It comes in the context of the legislation that relates to political donations and political funding in Ireland. All of us in this House know that in the past, the culture of political donations in Ireland involved politicians receiving money without any oversight or transparency. We are acutely aware of the damage that did to all aspects of Irish society, but particularly, to the esteem in which politics was held in this country. It has damaged it and that damage is still apparent today.
In that regard, in 2001 the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, was established to deal with exactly these issues and to put in place a framework that ensured political parties and politicians were accountable for the money they received and there was a control and a smacht, of sorts, in the manner in which money was spent in politics. After the establishment of SIPO, it became apparent that there was a gap in the legislation. It also became apparent - and this was one of the recommendations from the Moriarty tribunal report - that a cap needed to be put on the amount of money any individual, politician or party could accept as a political donation.
In 2012, the then Fine Gael-led Government proposed the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012. It first came into the Houses in 2011. It was debated first in the Seanad and then in the Dáil in the first half of 2012. The Bill addressed those recommendations and substantially restricted donations to political parties from private individuals and corporate sources. That was the first time there had been such a comprehensive attempt to address political funding in that regard. Section 9 of 2012 Act inserted a new section 23A into the Electoral Act 1997, subsection (1) of which limits the amount of money any person could give to a political party to €2,500. As a result of that legislation, in no circumstance may any one person give any more than €2,500 to a political party.
That legislation received support from all parties, particularly from Sinn Féin which welcomed the legislation into this House and spoke in favour of it. Deputy David Cullinane was at that time a Senator in this House. He spoke at various Stages during the debate and explained how the Bill tied into the broader issue of representation in politics. He mentioned that many people had turned away from politics because of what they had seen in the years before that. He said:
That is part of the problem in that there are still loopholes in the system. There are ways in which people can get around these limits.
It appears that was never as true as it is today. At a later Stage, he said, "It is important we ensure that in seeking to reform this area, we make it as accountable as possible." I find myself in a position where I must wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.
His colleague in the Dáil, Deputy Brian Stanley, welcomed the legislation, and specifically welcomed the reduction to €2,500 the maximum single donation that a political party could receive. He continued:
Political transparency is very important.
Limiting the influence of big business and of a small number of wealthy individuals on our political system is essential for the protection of a fair democratic system.
The then Senator Cullinane lamented the fact that in American politics, "billions of dollars are now being raised by the political parties and candidates". In light of what we now know about the bequest from Mr. William Hampton, the only party on this island which seems to take in money in that kind of order is Sinn Féin. The situation now is that when it suits, Sinn Féin abandons the speeches of 2012, moves away from the suggestion that there must be transparency and moves away from the support for measures that restrict the number of donations that can be given to political parties.
We recognise there is a gap in the legislation. It concerns any party operating in Ireland and in other jurisdictions, which is not just Sinn Féin; it is also the Green Party and Solidarity-People Before Profit.However, neither of these parties received the €4 million bequest that came from the estate of Englishman William Hampton in recent times. The most notable thing about this bequest is that it came with conditions. It was, we know, and this is in the motion, for the political party in the Republic of Ireland currently known as Sinn Féin. The money was given to Sinn Féin for operations in the Republic of Ireland. Sinn Féin will undoubtedly say it operates in the North and it will spend that money in the North but it cannot have it both ways. The legislation in this jurisdiction is clear. Either Sinn Féin disagrees with the conditions of the bequest from Mr. Hampton or it proposes to spend it other than solely in the North of Ireland. The difficulty is we cannot be sure. We cannot know and this is the gap that exists in the legislation. This is why Fine Gael is bringing this motion.
Recent weeks have shown that Sinn Féin is willing to make four individuals in its party accountable for their actions but as an organisation, is it willing to be accountable for its actions? Is it willing to answer questions about its financial culture? This motion is an opportunity to do so. Sinn Féin is a party of contradictions. It prides itself on standing up for ordinary workers but it is the party of big money. It prides itself on being an anti-partition 32-county party but it is partitionist when it wants to be. It accuses others of vested interests but it flaunts rules and, indeed, its own rules, and it certainly keeps its counsel when it suits its circle of friends. John Hume used a phrase in the 1970s and it is as relevant today. He said that one of these days Sinn Féin will disappear up its own contradiction. The question for my Sinn Féin colleagues today is simple. Can they put a price on principles? By voting "No" to this motion it seems they can.
Sinn Féin accepted a €4 million donation into the party's accounts in the North when it was bequeathed to Sinn Féin in the Republic of Ireland, taking advantage of much more lenient controls of political donations compared to the South. Some people may ask what does it matter. There are real concerns that Sinn Féin is dragging us back to the bad old days of Irish politics and cutting corners if people can get away with it. Sinn Féin is the party of big money. Its members do not notice £10,000 sitting in their bank accounts. I do not know a constituency organisation or a person, never mind four, who would not notice that type of money. Is it coincidence or culture? Its members are elected on the basis of abstention from Westminster but from 2010 to 2019 came £4.5 million in Westminster expenses. It is the richest political party in the country. In the North, its income last year was £2.5 million. By comparison, the SDLP's income was less than £150,000. It owns 50 properties in the South and is quite the landlord. It has a global fundraising network, especially in the United States. Friends of Sinn Féin has a site where people can directly donate money to support its activity in the North.
We need a fully transparent account from Sinn Féin on the public money that ended up in the bank account of a Senator of this House because it goes to the heart of the motion tabled by my colleague, Senator Ward. Was it a personal or political bank account? Is it normal practice for Sinn Féin politicians in the South to have access to political accounts in the North that are held to different standards in public office? Is any money in their accounts used to influence decisions or fund activity in the South? It returned the funds after the BBC and the Sunday Lifeuncovered connections. Why did it only take action when the media got involved twice? The Covid emergency fund was meant for struggling businesses that really needed the money. This is a bread and butter issue from which Sinn Féin cannot hide. Its party leader is adamant this issue is closed because she has dealt with it. Why move swiftly and ruthlessly on this issue and not on other grave issues that have affected other former Senators in this House, such as Máiría Cahill? Were issues like that not as important? It makes one wonder why they want this issue to go away so quickly.
Tonight's Private Members' motion is linked to a €4 million donation provided to Sinn Féin which, according to the estate of William Hampton, is "for the political party in the Republic of Ireland known at this time as Sinn Féin". I really believe Sinn Féin has some real questions to ask itself and a chance to look at its moral compass, if one even exists, and decide what it will do with a €4 million donation.
If the spotlight had not been shone on this matter and if it had disappeared into the ether what would have become of it? It would have been laundered across the Border to infiltrate and influence political outcomes in this country. The money would have been swapped across the Border, as has been done on countless occasions, to undermine the democratic process. If this money is used in the Republic of Ireland, either directly or indirectly, it is quite simply subversive. Whether it goes to research or cash in hand for canvassers, extra office staff or election campaigns, it is subversive money that has come across the Northern Irish Border and has been laundered across it. For this reason, the spending of this cash, and all Sinn Féin cash, needs to be totally and utterly transparent.
This counts the same for all of the republican sympathisers, the armchair republicans in the United States who might find it difficult to point to the island of Ireland on a geographical map. They donate vast sums of money every year to the Sinn Féin Party. The €4 million donation, as far as I am concerned, is only the tip of the iceberg. It is only the tip of a deep, dark and corrupt pit of money that the Sinn Féin Party uses. It is time to shine a light on these dark corners of our democracy and illuminate what is actually happening and how a select group of people in Belfast are directing it to undermine and influence the political situation here in this very Oireachtas.
I have spent the past few months listening to the concept of an all-Ireland approach to Covid and I firmly agree with this and with cross-border co-operation. However, the rank hypocrisy occurs when it is a €4 million donation into Sinn Féin's back pocket. When it comes to cash in hand there is no mention whatsoever of all-Ireland approaches, no mention of cross-border co-operation and no empathy with the everyday struggles people are facing. This is when Sinn Féin ceases to be a 32-county political party and becomes a six-county United Kingdom political party for the purposes of laundering money into the Republic of Ireland. This is the real irony of this entire situation. This is the legacy of Sinn Féin. It is a united Ireland party when it suits it for political record and a United Kingdom party when it comes to getting cash under the table. Unfortunately, where I come from, on the Border between Louth and south Armagh, we know all too well about money laundering be it fuel, cash or credit union robberies. Subversive elements have tormented communities on both sides of the Border. It was subversive laundering and the criminality of money that allowed someone who was described as a good republican by the former leader of the Sinn Féin party to live a charmed existence protected by his very own golden circle.
Some of it might depends on what comes next. I had to shake myself there because for wee second I thought I was at a Traditional Unionist Voice party conference as opposed to in the Oireachtas listening to some of the previous contributions but there you go and here we are.
This is without question the strangest use of Private Members' time I have witnessed since being elected to the Seanad in 2016. The motion before us surely represents the first time a political party is being criticised for adhering to its legal requirements. This debate, it seems, will not be about facts, or has not been thus far. Rather it has been about alternative facts. It is an attempt by Fine Gael somehow to suggest that adhering to one's legal requirements is something to be sniffed at. It is not. Sinn Féin takes our requirements very seriously and let me state the facts very clearly. Sinn Féin is an all-Ireland party. We are lawfully obliged to register as a political party in both jurisdictions on this island and to comply with relevant legislation and statutory regulations North and South. This state of affairs is a consequence of partition. If only it were not so but it is. It is the objective of Sinn Féin to dismantle partition and unite our country. We want to end policy disparity on the island.Instead of joining with us in that endeavour, those in Fine Gael and now Fianna Fáil, the artist formerly known as the republican party, tell us that such an objective is divisive. They tell us that it is contentious. They say, no, not yet but maybe in 30 years' time we can start to talk about it. That is their view but they are not shy about exploiting partition to play cheap and cynical political games like we are seeing here tonight because that is what this motion is all about.
Senator Ward is a barrister so understands that partition means that there are two legal systems on this island. He also knows full well that Sinn Féin meets all of its legal requirements. That Sinn Féin received a significant donation from a party supporter who died has been a matter of public knowledge for well over a year. We have made it clear repeatedly that this donation will only be spent in the North. We are in full compliance with the requirements of the Electoral Commission in the North. The Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, here in the South has confirmed to us that the subject matter of this donation is closed. The proposers wanted transparency and there is the transparency.
Fine Gael often boasts that it is the party of law and order. It is more like the party of law and order that now attacks Sinn Féin for what, I hear one ask, adhering to the law. If Fine Gael is serious about giving SIPO new powers then why did it not start by giving SIPO the powers that it actually wants. A former Fine Gael Member of this House, Michael D'Arcy, resigned recently to become a corporate lobbyist. In order to further regulate corporate lobbying, SIPO made a total of 22 separate recommendations during a review of the lobbying laws and asked for stronger legislative powers. None of those recommendations has been implemented. None of them has been proposed in Fine Gael's Private Members' time this afternoon because that would mean upsetting Fine Gael's friends in the banking sector and the world of high finance, the insiders, their mates or their "muckers", as we call them in Béal Feirste. That is the reality. Do not get me started on the blind hypocrisy of a number of Fine Gael Senators who have spoken or added their names to this particular motion. One of them, Senator Ward, when he was a councillor, claimed over €10,000 of public moneys for a college course. This drew sharp criticism from the Standards in Public Office Commission and rightly so. Why, because SIPO legislation did not, I repeat did not, allow for councillors to claim the cost of third level degree courses. Did Barry Ward ever pay that money back? Did he even consider it? If we are in the business of full transparency then that question should be answered. He is choosing not to, some buachaill.
I take the advice of the Cathaoirleach. I note that I will be careful and compliant with his guidance.
This was part of Fine Gael's creation of additional super junior Minister positions. So when the media started to ask questions about this, Paschal Donohoe's special adviser told his departmental press office, it is reported, to sit tight on this for now. This is the same Senator who after the liquidation of her Enhanced Solutions Limited company owed the Revenue Commissioners €60,000 and owed the State-owned bank, AIB, €50,000. So one can see why I will not take any lectures this evening.
I want Members to be aware that this is not a court of law. Accusations are being made to that regard and I have not been given advanced warning of them. Members want to be very careful not to stray beyond the bounds of what privilege is for.
I adhere to the advice and guidance of the Cathaoirleach. I respect it but I think everything that I have just read into the record is on the public record already.
This motion is not serious and that is the crux of things. It is a PR stunt and even the most ardent Fine Gael loyalist will see that is the case. The sheer arrogance and notions of the proposers that Sinn Féin would be told by them what to do in relation to a settled, legally compliant matter really does beggar belief. If I am being entirely honest with the Cathaoirleach I will not be taking those lectures.
This motion comes from a party whose leader was the subject of a confidence motion in the Dáil last night. Why? It was because of the insider cosy-club politics that Fine Gael is so wedded too. Leo Varadkar leaked a confidential Government document to a friend of his. That, again, is a fact. Favours for friends, connections to pals in the world of high finance, access to power while ordinary people are frozen out but fighting to have their voices heard. That is the politics of Fine Gael and that is why they are so determined tonight to sling mud because they do not like being called out for what they are.
I offer condolences and sympathies to the family of Mr. William Hampton. It is really unseemly that anybody's will would be drawn into this type of a debate. It is really unseemly that public representatives, of any description, are actually debating the need for transparency around the funding of political activities in this day and age. If this was 20, 30 or 50 years ago one might consider the debate acceptable. It is really offensive to the people of our country, the people who pay their taxes, the people who adhere to our laws and the people who expect us to represent them with dignity and transparency. The mud slinging that has gone on here only further demeans the issue.
Speaking on behalf of Fianna Fáil, we will be supporting the motion. The core of the motion is quite straightforward. The motion states categorically, which Sinn Féin does not dispute, that it is accepting €4 million of a donation, accepts that it operates in the Republic of Ireland and accepts that the laws in the Republic of Ireland prohibit donations to political parties above €2,500. Then Sinn Féin ignores that and conveniently accepts it on the other side of the Border. So Sinn Féin is giving two fingers to the deceased, to the expressed wishes in his will, two fingers to the laws of this Republic that Sinn Féin presents itself to participate in creating and upholding, and giving two fingers to every citizen in this country who abides by our laws. It is a completely unacceptable low point in 2020.
Mention has been made of all of the other funds, the $15 million that has been collected in the US. How any public representative in this Republic could stand over the collection of funds in foreign jurisdictions, and the use of foreign funds to influence and effect the outcome of our elections, is beyond me. Regarding the £30,000 or £40,000 that was resting in God knows how many bank accounts and how many currencies, €10,000 is an awful lot of money and that any political organisation did not notice the money, not just for days or weeks but for months, is unbelievable.
I am delighted that the Minister of State is here. I want his office to impress upon the Standards in Public Office Commission the importance of this issue, not to any of us individuals but to the people that we represent. It is incredibly important that we uphold and defend democracy, and that every resource of the State is used to defend that. The request is very simple in terms of what we are asking the Standards in Public Office Commission to do. SIPO engages quite vigorously with individual public representatives. This is a large amount of money and Sinn Féin is a very large organisation so I expect that it will have no difficulty in laying before the Seanad a report by 31 December of this year to ensure that no resources are used inappropriately or to distort our democratic processes in this Republic.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber again. An issue arises regarding the essence of our democracy. We have had the opportunity in these Chambers to discuss questions about political funding and outside influences in politics. There are a number of points I want to raise. First, a question has to be asked about the donation of €4.6 million. An issue arises over media probing. I challenge the media in that if in the past a donation had been made to a leader of Fianna Fáil, the likes of Vincent Browne would have been exploring in great detail how a gentleman with seemingly no means had over two dozen bank accounts worldwide, including an account in a bank in Singapore with over €1 million. I question why investigative work has not been done by the media in this regard. Part of the problem is that, in all these matters, Sinn Féin is perceived to be above the law and it is not scrutinised to the same extent as other political parties. Every political party should be scrutinised and held to account. Any of us who has dealt with the Standards in Public Office Commission knows the extent to which it goes through all our election returns and asks questions, even about the smallest amounts. We know how long it takes it to address this. We have robust legislation but I believe it needs to go further. I hope the electoral commission legislation will address this.
Senator McGahon referred to money being spent on election workers and so on. I am more concerned about the spending of money on online political advertising. While it is very easy for a party in the North to say it will not be paying for posters and so on down south, expenditure of €4 million on political advertising could have a huge impact on our election. We have noted the polarisation in the United States, much of it driven by online advertising. I encourage those who may not have seen the film "The Social Dilemma" on Netflix to watch it to learn about the polarising effect of online political advertising. I have no doubt, and there is evidence, that Sinn Féin has started to use online political advertising to polarise our society.
My final point is on our debate in general. I would worry if our debate became polarised, with Fine Gael on one side and Sinn Féin on the other. All political parties in this House have different views but it is very difficult when engaging in detailed policy discussion to compete with a fancy meme or a trendy hashtag. From a policy perspective, we have got to ensure, for the safety of our democracy, that we start to protect policy.
I am going to respond to Senator Ó Donnghaile's attack on Fianna Fáil's republican credentials. It is all very easy for Sinn Féin to ask for a Border poll, with no thought about the consequences. The difference between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin is that Fianna Fáil thinks these things through. Sinn Féin decided to campaign against Brexit after the referendum but Fianna Fáil wants to prepare for these issues. In those circumstances, I defend my party's republican record. I defend the fact that we have set up a shared island unit. We can listen to all the slogans and the fighting between Sinn Féin and Fine Gael but I am not going to allow polarisation in politics to develop. Fianna Fáil, as a party at the political centre, will respond with policies.
Before I call on the next Senator, Senator Moynihan, I wish to remind Members that when they are making allegations in this House, they should be very careful because their comments could have serious consequences for the reputation of the House and its Members. I want people to have a debate, obviously, but to be respectful.
I am sharing my time with Senator Sherlock.
I am somewhat dismayed to be here listening to what seems to be the defining political narrative of this Oireachtas, which involves Sinn Féin taking a populist pop at Fine Gael over elitism and Fine Gael bouncing back with a swipe at Sinn Féin over underhand tactics. The rest of us are caught in this arrangement that is mutually beneficial to both parties. A confidence motion in an individual took up Dáil time yesterday and now we have this issue, which involves one party taking up our time. It gives energy to the Sinn Féin and Fine Gael benches but, as Senator Byrne said, it can be quite draining. What is happening is taking place at the expense of policy.
It is important, however, to speak to the wider issue of money and politics, including how money can influence politics. The donation from the estate of William Hampton to what he defines in his will as the political party operating in the Republic of Ireland known as Sinn Féin has exposed a loophole in our donation system and it is a warning shot indicating what might happen if we do not close it. The issue here is not what one political party does; it is the bigger, more general issue of one person making a donation so large that it could reasonably influence our electoral system, and of somebody with access to a significant amount of cash being able to fund his or her pet political party or project. Sinn Féin will argue that this is not the case and that it did not ask for the donation, but it has the power to decide what it is going to do with it. It has decided to go against the spirit of the law in the Republic of Ireland by keeping it.
Let me give a couple of hypothetical examples. If somebody living on an offshore island and with Irish business interests decided to donate money to Fianna Fáil's sister party, the SDLP, which was registered, and it in turn decided to give money to Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin would be jumping up and down. It would be right. That is essentially what is happening here. Sinn Féin does not have a leg to stand on regarding money in politics and elitism if it accepts a donation when it suits it and if it is saying it is acceptable for other parties to do so. There is a principle at stake, that is, that rich people and people who have access to wealth should not be able to fund their own pet political projects. It is a principle we should all stand over. The interaction between politics and money does not serve people well and has not served us well in the past. We cannot pick and choose when we are going to apply the principles or pick and choose regarding jurisdictions and laws.
Let me refer to another hypothetical scenario. If an Irish national party registered in both the Six Counties and the Republic received a very large donation from a nativist Irish American who supported its deluded desire to have an imaginary island it heard about in tales about making Ireland for the white Irish again, we would all have a problem with that. That is what the laws are designed to stop. In the United Kingdom, money was funnelled to the DUP for the Brexit referendum campaign to get around campaign expenditure limits. In the very last days of the campaign, the DUP suddenly had access to a large amount of cash to influence the referendum result.
This issue is much bigger than that of Sinn Féin or one political party but for all of us to have credibility regarding the wider issue, Sinn Féin needs to be willing to return the donation. It is about the principle of protecting democracy and not allowing it to be subverted by the political whims of one rich individual. We should all be in favour of that.
There is a certain irony in the fact that at the end of last week, Fine Gael Senators had a motion on the Order Paper on the issue of young people. As this House knows, young people are enduring an incredibly tough time. There is an unemployment rate of 20%. We do not have the safety valve of emigration and there are fewer opportunities to engage in activities, socialise or meet friends. There is a very genuine prospect of having a lost generation. I believed it was a really good idea to have a motion on young people to debate the resources and investment they need but the motion got the shove. We see the real priorities of Fine Gael this week. It is very unfortunate that this matter is taking up two hours in what is a precious Seanad schedule. We do not have a very long time here week in, week out, yet two hours have been allowed to debate these issues. It is regrettable that Fine Gael has chosen to spend its time like this.There are serious issues with regard to political spending in this country. On the motion itself, when we look around the world, we can see the impact of big money on democracies and the threat posed by money from certain countries undermining political systems. We see the emergence of the far right. While it might be small in this country, it is growing. There are serious issues for our political system. Those of us elected to the Seanad and the Dáil, or as councillors, have to assure the citizens of our country and those who vote for us that we have a fair, transparent and democratic political system. Part and parcel of that is how political parties and institutions are funded.
I would say to Sinn Féin with regard to the motion tabled that there is an onus on the party to put before this House a statement that the funds it has received from the estate of the late Mr. Hampton were not utilised in this jurisdiction. Sinn Féin may ask why it is being held to a higher standard than any other political party. I would say that it would serve Sinn Féin better and our political institutions better if we had that transparency and credibility in giving us assurances that that money will not be used. There is an issue regarding how we do our business in this House and the use of motions. Every political grouping in this House has just two slots for Private Members' business between now and Christmas. It is regrettable that Fine Gael has decided to use this time to talk about these issues instead of bringing forward a Private Members' Bill to plug the holes that it has identified in the legislation. I want to correct Senator Ward about comments he made earlier about his party introducing legislation. It was the Labour Party in government in 1997 that first introduced the caps on political spending in this country and it is important to have that on the record.
This motion raises important fundamental points. Although there has been considerable crossfire in the Chamber this evening, there are historical matters which must be addressed too. I was in Weston Park in Britain in 2001 when the Irish Government was informed that senior members of the republican movement were in Colombia. They were selling military know-how to FARC, a Marxist guerilla group there, in exchange for approximately $20 million, which was funded from the narcotics trade by FARC. That was in 2001, three years after the Good Friday Agreement. The Good Friday Agreement finally bedded down in 2006 at the St. Andrews conference and got going thereafter.
During the period from 2002 to 2006, I was aware, as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform of major criminality of a fundraising kind being orchestrated from Belfast by senior figures in the republican movement. Robberies were committed here in the city of Dublin, concentrating on proxy theft from Dublin Port. There was the Makro robbery in Northern Ireland, a celebrated case of a provo fundraising operation. As we know, there was the Northern Bank robbery too. Senior Sinn Féin people were involved in laundering the proceeds of that robbery. I cannot at this stage turn a blind eye to all that and say that that fundraising was something which we can just blithely ignore.
Senator Currie has mentioned the 60 premises in this jurisdiction owned by Sinn Féin. Where did this money come from? Who pays for these premises? There are many other issues, such as the non-application, in a secure way, of the Irish laws on political donations to the Sinn Féin Party, because it is organised as a single entity on both sides of the Border.
It is important that this House knows about the years from 2002 to 2006, when the Government of which I was a member was putting everything into ensuring that the Belfast Agreement succeeded and that the semtex was handed up, with the signs on Belfast roadsides reading "Not an ounce, not a bullet". During those years, we were insistent that the provo machine gave up criminality and stopped shooting people in their knees in back alleys in Belfast, and that it should undertake to accept the rule of law and the legitimacy of the Police Service of Northern Ireland unequivocally. We spent much time trying to achieve that. There was a struggle, with ambivalence and foot-dragging, and a desire to keep people like, I am sorry to say, the late Bobby Storey, immune from the public glare. He was identified as the organiser of much of the Provisional movement's criminal activities. I will not go into the fuel laundering and money laundering activities which took place along the Border.
I want this House to know that the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and I were conscious that we were not insisting as part of the overall implementation of the Good Friday Agreement that the increasingly severe money-raising restrictions on Irish political parties to which the last speaker referred, starting from 1997 onwards, would be immediately applicable to Sinn Féin. During those years, I, as Minister, went to North America and spoke to very rich American businessmen who were contributing large sums of money via Friends of Sinn Féin and other events to fund the Sinn Féin Party in this jurisdiction. I remember pointing out to them that they should look at the permanent representative of Sinn Féin in Havana and at the FARC connections of Sinn Féin, and ask themselves if it is really a political party which they should donate to. We made the calculation at that time that it was important for the Sinn Féin movement to be brought across the line and that there was a significant Sinn Féin activist element in North America, with the chief function of raising money for the republican movement, as they wrongly called it, on this island. Bertie Ahern and I took the view that the priority was to get the Good Friday Agreement up and running, and that an insistence on dismantling all the Sinn Féin money-raising activity in America would be counterproductive.
The time has come for everybody in this State to operate on a level playing field. We had examples of claims made in this House, and elsewhere, to the Irish public, that Sinn Féin Deputies donated everything above the average industrial wage to the party. If that was the case at the time, that was clearly unlawful, because that exceeded the amount permitted by law. I only want transparency and a level playing field for all participants in our democratic process.The thought process that led me and the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, not to insist on strict controls on foreign fundraising must now end. I will finish on this point. We must legislate to make sure that everybody, whether they organise themselves like the Green Party, North and South, or not, plays on the same level playing pitch, by the same rules and with the same standards of honesty and that the legacy of distorting the democratic process by moneys obtained in the manner I have described ends now and never recurs.
I will share time with Senator Garvey. I am here as the leader of the Green Party and, as has been mentioned by the proposer Senator Ward, the Green Party is the only other party in this Chamber that operates North and South. Therefore, I will lay out our perspective on this. The motion calls on the Government to update the electoral laws to ensure a political party that is registered in this State and in another jurisdiction, such as north of the Border, accepts no donation greater than those allowable under SIPO. We certainly agree with that and have no problem with that. I wonder why anyone else would have a problem with that.
We can look at donations in three different ways. We can say to ourselves: "Here are the rules. This is what SIPO says. We are, as a party, going to look at those rules and we are going to go a step further and put in place within our own party more obligations." The second thing we can do is to look at SIPO and do exactly as it says, as most political parties will do. The third thing we can do is look at what SIPO says and say: "Is there an offshore bank account we can put our money into? Is there a loophole that we can find?"
Fundamentally, this comes down to a matter of ethics. We know from looking at other jurisdictions across the world that we have all been complaining about what has happened with Brexit, repeal and the 2016 election in the United States. Then we sit here and say we think Ireland should follow the same path. I think not. It is up to Sinn Féin to say it is leaving behind its past and is moving into the democratic process we are all involved in.
It has been mentioned that Sinn Féin has 200 staff and more than 50 properties. I have done a back-of-the-envelope calculation and Sinn Féin is also entitled to 110 staff within Leinster House. That is more than 300 staff. We are operating in a system where we are trying to compete, for want of a better word, for votes against these parties. We simply cannot do it, particularly online. I do not know, coming from a party that operates North and South, how anybody can reasonably have an all-Ireland campaign and say they are satisfied they are not using that €4 million. Will there be staff employed North of the Border who will retweet things? Will they retweet tweets down South? How will Sinn Féin show and convince us that is not happening?
The easiest thing for Sinn Féin to say is that it is not taking the €4 million. I have here the will and it is incredibly clear that it is to cover election expenses, to fund Sinn Féin offices and advice centres, to aid republican prisoners and their families in both Ireland and Britain, and that it is to be held in trust for the political party in the Republic of Ireland. It is incredibly clear. I do not know how that obligation could be fulfilled if the money is taken up North in the first instance.
The easiest thing to do is to give back the money in excess of €2,500, but I also call on the Minister to put that obligation in place. It would also be an obligation on the Green Party, the only other party here to which it would apply. I further call on the Minister to come back to us before 31 December as to how he might reasonably check how the funding is being used.
It is a shame that we have to use Private members' business for this kind of thing but that is what it has come to. Nobody wants to use Private Members' business for these kind of situations but it is a grave situation. Most of all, I am confused. First, I am confused there are so few Members from Sinn Féin here, as it is a grave issue. There is one person. That is quite shocking. I am also confused because Sinn Féin says it is an all-Ireland party, but is it or is it not? If it is, how can it justify not allowing some of the money it gets to be spent over the Border? That seems un-all-Ireland-all-inclusive, as it were. Nobody has created a way to control social media and where it goes. Sinn Féin wants no borders and social media is one place that has no borders. I am deeply confused about that and perhaps a Sinn Féin Member will take a minute to explain it to me. Perhaps I am missing something.
A real republican party wants to unify, not divide, so it would not divide the money across the Border. Sinn Féin has an opportunity today to unify all the people in the House and perhaps in Ireland who have trust issues around where this money has gone. Sinn Féin has an opportunity to unify people today, instead of being divisive, explain clearly how it justifies having this amount of money and convince us it is not being used in the South.
I am sharing time with Senators Ahearn, Dolan and Seery Kearney. I do not believe in being unfair to people but I think what has happened in this situation is that this legacy has shone a light on the cash collecting that Sinn Féin has been engaged in for the past two decades.
I remember seeing a video in a documentary by Ann McCabe, husband of the late Jerry McCabe, who was murdered by the IRA, where she secretly filmed a Sinn Féin fundraiser in New York where Gerry Adams in his opening remarks said he thanked the participants and that they had raised a quarter of a million dollars. That is at one fundraising dinner.
I have two simple requests for Sinn Féin. First, hand back this €4 million legacy because it is the right, decent and proper thing to do. Second, introduce legislation in Northern Ireland that reflects the legislation that exists in this country in terms of SIPO. Two things: hand back the money and bring in the same laws in the North that exist in the South. It is simple and it would start the journey to transparency, which is what we want in this country.
I stand in support of the Private Members' business. I have been a Member of this House for six months and have worked with Deputies and Senators in other political parties and Independents alike. Although I disagree with them on a range of issues, I never doubt their sincerity. I cannot say that about Sinn Féin. I doubt that party's Members' sincerity on almost every issue, and this is a prime example. Every decision they take is not about what is right but is based on what is popular. It was for water charges until it was against them. It wanted to leave Europe until it wanted to stay in Europe. It is all fake. The best example of this has been the past few months during Covid. When Sinn Féin was asked if we should enter lockdown again, it could not answer. Why? Because it did not know what the public mood was.
Sinn Féin's politics is about dividing people and communities, pitching certain groups and sectors against each other. It claims to represent the ordinary working class but it does not. It has proven this in Northern Ireland, giving only £100 to people who lost their jobs during Covid. It talks about high moral standards but when most of the party attends a gathering of 2,500 people in Belfast, no one accepts accountability. Sinn Féin seems to think it is believable that someone could have £10,000 in their bank account for six months and not know about it and it claims expenses in the House of Commons while not attending.If this was any other political party in the State, it would be extinct.
Sinn Féin should not accept the €4 million and, as the richest party on the island, the least it should do is pay back the State the €25,000 it wasted last night on a motion of no confidence in a man who stands for everything that is the opposite of Sinn Féin - honesty, integrity and accountability.
I support Senator Ward on this matter. The rules apply to all of us and standards in public office are for all candidates and parties. I do not understand how it is possible to accept a donation that is 1,600 times the €2,500 limit on donations. That limit applies to protect democracy in our State by ensuring that all candidates have the same chance to be a public representative. Otherwise, it would be impossible for anyone to run for public office. I had the opportunity to run for office and we are lucky to be able to do that in Ireland because it is extremely expensive to do so in many other countries. It is about transparency and accountability.
I am worried about polarisation and populism which deny factual and evidence-based argument and remove the middle ground for compromise. We can see that happening on social media in many ways. We must stand up now for Ireland's democracy.
I listened with interest to Senator McDowell's contribution and it will be worth listening to it again or reading the transcript. We all follow US politics and have been doing so for the past while. We know the cost that a politician incurs in US politics in terms of fundraising requirements and all that. I would assume that US business people are very well versed in being asked to donate to a political party. Sinn Féin has the great advantage of being able to fly a nationalist flag and paint a picture of an old Ireland that is long gone.
What we have in our democracy is a low-cost, low-spend, transparent and accountable system of politics. All anyone would ask is that there is a level playing field for those of us who put our names on a ballot paper and go before the public in order that we are not in competition with a political party that is not following the same rules and guidelines. How can we know that the €4 million has not been spent, or will not be spent, in this jurisdiction by whatever means and however Sinn Féin wishes to do so? That is the issue here. I acknowledge and commend the motion proposed by Senator Ward.
I am supporting this motion and very much commend Senator Ward for bringing it forward. The claiming and taking of this money is a statement of sheer hypocrisy from a party that champions a 32-county island and claims it is the only all-Ireland party. It talks about unity and what its representatives stand for. They wrap themselves in the Tricolour at every possible opportunity. Sinn Féin had seats at a time when Ireland needed voices on the floor of the House in Westminster but its representatives refused to take an oath of allegiance to the crown and all that goes with that. At the same time, the party was happy to apply the rules of the crown when it came to making sure that they get to hold onto the money while using and abusing the fact that it operates in two jurisdictions and that the rules are different in the North. Sinn Féin is not adhering to the content of the will as was put before it. It chose to circumvent that.
This is about democracy for all of us. We have all gone through the painstaking effort of ensuring we are within the SIPO rules by making sure that we file our returns properly, keep our receipts and do everything we can because we believe in a democracy of equals. Everyone here can approach and stand for public office on the basis that they know the rules, play by the same rules and respect each other. We may disagree on policy but we respect each other.
All across this House and the Dáil, there is a nasty social media campaign where discourse is lowered to the lowest common denominator. It is akin to the stories that we hear and the testimonies that come out of the experience of Cambridge Analytica. We cannot be assured that moneys received by Sinn Féin are not being used to influence public thinking in a way that means members of the public are not even aware their thinking is being changed. We cannot be assured that social media discourse is not being abused and used by Sinn Féin using this money. It needs to return the money and stand up with integrity, if that is possible, and in so doing ensure it is adhering to the rules of the Republic of Ireland that it claims to support and promote.
I will resist the temptation to use this debate as an opportunity to vent my views on Sinn Féin. I will not do that. My views on Sinn Féin are well known and I am sure their views on me are also well known.
This is a serious motion and I am surprised that the Chamber is less peopled not only by Sinn Féin but also one or two other groups that are vocal on most issues. They are disappointingly absent here tonight.
Money and politics have a fraught relationship at the best of times. No political party is as pure as the driven snow and there have been well-documented incidents of less than appropriate behaviour in receiving funding for elections and so on in my party and others. When the average member of my party thinks about fundraising, he or she thinks about standing outside the local church on wet, wintery days, taking up a national collection. He or she thinks of going door to door to the party faithful, selling a raffle ticket at Christmas or perhaps trying to get money into our super draw once a year. I have organised nights at the dogs, the races and every other thing because I am useful at fundraising and make myself useful.
Sinn Féin missed the opportunity of the century when it received this extraordinarily strange windfall. Its representatives could have said to themselves that it was not right for them to accept it, north or south of the Border. This was their opportunity, if they mean what they say, to forgo that windfall and say they are not going to be seen in any way to endanger the democratic process on this island and to reject the dangers that such a sum of money presents not only to themselves but to the body politic. Did they make that choice? They did not. They took the seedy option of pretending that the money was really for Sinn Féin in the North, where there are, unfortunately, no consequences for accepting such a huge amount of money. That money would skew any election. I know what it costs to run a general election campaign. Our party is in significant debt at the moment after the most recent election, as, I am sure, are the other major parties represented here other than Sinn Féin. It is awash and knee-deep in money. Money has become a huge part of the raison d'êtreof Sinn Féin. Is it receiving these funds by way of small donations from the ordinary man on the street? Of course not. If it were, I would take my hat off and respect it. There was considerable spending around the election in America and Joe Biden, thankfully, made use of his huge coffers but that money, in the main, came from smaller donations across the board. Sinn Féin talks the talk but will never walk the walk.
Like the Cathaoirleach, I have worked with Sinn Féin representatives at local level in Kerry and many of them are personable, decent individuals. There are also decent individuals from Sinn Féin in both Houses of the Oireachtas. However, when it comes to the national issue, Sinn Féin Inc. in its latest manifestation, of which there have been many, is a threat to this State. I honestly believe that and would not say it if I did not believe it. Sinn Féin wants to subvert this State. It has tried to do so time and time again. I am old enough to remember when Jack Lynch and Des O'Malley had to have round-the-clock protection because of death threats to them from Sinn Féin-IRA.That was not all that long ago.
Senator McDowell spoke eloquently about what the Good Friday Agreement had given us - thankfully, a valuable type of peace in the North. It has not given us normality or a normal society, though. Nor will there ever be a normal society as long as one group is consistently posing a threat to the way of life of another. Nationalists were on the receiving end of that type of bullying throughout the 1960s. John Hume, Austin Currie, Seamus Mallon and others picked up the cudgels that were used against them, but their best efforts were interrupted and sidelined by the men of violence, who had no support from the people. I had to laugh when I saw Sinn Féin people on social media glorifying their wonderful election result - more luck to them on the great result they got - and how they were flying in the polls. What interest had Sinn Féin in polls when the IRA was murdering people morning, noon and night in the North and when it was robbing banks and shooting gardaí and Army personnel in the South? They did not have even 5% of the people's support, but they did not give a damn. It did not matter. They are different that way.
I will go back to the basics and say what I started with. I appeal to Senator Ó Donnghaile. It is not too late to refuse the money. What does Sinn Féin want it for? It has enough. It should fight its elections like the rest of us - on its feet with the support of the people. If Sinn Féin gets the support of the people, I will be the first to say "Good luck on getting elected". It is on a figure of 30% or so at present. Its members have lost the run of themselves. Adolf Hitler got into power with a similar vote. We will not be so foolish down here.
I will appeal to the Senator on another matter. When he and his colleagues are referring to this body down here, we are not a "state". This is the Republic of Ireland, and I am proud to say I am a member of that Republic. When people of his party, in the hot flush of an election, start saying "Up the Ra" and "We broke the Free State", it will be remembered long after the shouting and celebrations in Waterford are forgotten. I appeal to the Senator to use his good offices and refuse this money. Do the decent thing. Stop trying to fool the people that Sinn Féin is a Northern Ireland party when it suits it and a Southern Ireland party at other times. Hand back that money. It will do Sinn Féin no good, and I cannot see any good use to which it could be put.
I remember canvassing in a general election of yesteryear and being challenged by an animated and exercised member of the electorate who said that the Green Party was not a Thirty-two County party. When I replied that we were and that we had councillors and MLAs in the North, I was told that we were not a "true" Thirty-two County party. I decided to tell him that he was right, because we were a global organisation. That is not where it ends. Come the counting of the votes, that person who challenged me and delayed me considerably was a tallyman for a particular political party. Which party it was might not surprise Senators.
It is liberating being the Green Party. I cannot comment with authority north of the Border, but the religion of certain people, including my former party leader, has been brought to my attention over the years in the most unusual circumstances. I was not aware of his religion. As a student of history, I took a certain amount of pleasure in the two democratic bastions of Ireland, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, coming together and burying their differences. It was gigantic and something I did not believe I would see in my lifetime. I remember watching the then Taoiseach and current Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, saying on "The Late Late Show" that it would be a great challenge for the Green Party and that, if we wanted to get our green message out to all of rural Ireland, this would be a wonderful moment to bring the two big parties with us, because who better to carry the message for us and take a few bullets for the Green Party along the way? The Green Party voted to go into government.
We talk about the difference between orange and green and the question of how to unite them in peace. Unfortunately, I have seen a different division close up since being elected to the Seanad, that being, the division between green and green, for want of a better term. It is not a policy difference. If we truly want a united Ireland by peaceful means, which I do as a constitutional republican, we will have to get our house in order in the Twenty-six Counties sooner or later. At the moment, it is a divided house. How can we lecture unionists, who are fellow Irish men and women, to coalesce in the North when I sense something that is, at times, little short of extreme dislike in the South? I could have used a stronger term, but let us leave it at that. Sooner or later, there will have to be reconciliation in the South. I am a Border boy and I could talk about the people we lost. I do not want to name anyone in particular in case it does a disservice to the many who fell in that wanton waste of life, but we will eventually have to move on. It will kill us to do so. I understand Senator O'Sullivan's heartfelt concerns about the past, but when I canvassed during this year's general election, there were people who did not remember that wanton waste of life or even the Twin Towers. They had not been born then, yet they would be voting in that election.
For the avoidance of any doubt, I concur with the remarks of the Green Party's Seanad leader, Senator Pauline O'Reilly. Fine Gael has every entitlement to table this motion, but I am concerned about the long-term damage it will cause. We must work better. We must reach out to the other side. John Hume did not have time to help us – he was busy in the Six Counties. He spoke of a country called “Europe” and dealing with commonalities. His message was that, at the end of the day, we were all living in a country called “Europe”.
There were great people like Mr. Austin Currie in the SDLP. They ploughed a lonely furrow at times. They were chased out of certain estates where they were canvassing and were told that they would not be allowed to re-enter, but can we move on from “Brits out, peace in”, please? I used to see that graffiti.
I also used to see another slogan - “Freedom, Justice, Peace”. However, what we are seeing is not really freedom, justice and peace. I heralded the Good Friday Agreement and thank the many politicians who made it happen, but it has not delivered true normality, the word used by Senator O'Sullivan. We should strive for that in our lifetimes. It will ask much of many, but no more than it asked of Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley when they shook hands. Our journey is less painful than what they had to go through. I will not give anyone a free pass, but everyone in the South of Ireland – the proud Republic of Ireland – will sooner or later have to sit down, work towards a better Ireland for everyone and get our house in order so that we can have a truly shared island, one that I hope will some day be united.
I thank the Senators who tabled this motion for my daily visit to the Seanad. Before I get to the substantive issue of the motion, I wish to refer to the robust debate we have had. It must be that way sometimes, but I am always impressed by the level of debate in this House.
It is important to point out that, in an era of political online campaigning where politics are increasingly fought in a different arena, financing in our political system has a significant influence on the outcome of elections, referendums and political narratives.It is important that we have this debate this evening.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in the debate and I thank Senator Ward for bringing forward this motion, which at its core seeks to strengthen our electoral laws to ensure that donations and resources from non-citizens resident outside the State are not being utilised to influence our elections and political processes. The Government is not opposed to the objectives of the motion and is committed to safeguarding our democratic processes from any undue or hidden influences. I am aware this motion concerns the death of a British citizen in a nursing home in Wales in January 2018 and the donation of significant funds from his considerable estate to the Sinn Féin Party. While I do not wish to comment in any great detail on the specific case, I would like to take the opportunity of the debate to clarify for the House the extent of existing legislative provisions in respect of political spending and donations.
As Senators 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 inter-related issues, such as funding for political parties, reimbursement of election expenses, the establishment of election expenditure limits, the disclosure of election expenditure, 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 purposes which 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 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. A core objective of the Act is to ensure that there is transparency in how our political parties and the wider political system are funded. As all Senators will acknowledge, transparency in political funding is of particular importance during the holding of elections - that point has been well made here this evening - which are at the very heart of our democratic process, to enable the electorate to make informed choices when casting their votes on the one hand and to ensure a level playing field, as mentioned by Senator McDowell, between candidates and political parties on the other.
It might be useful to recall what is required when a donation is made for political purposes to any person or political party obligated under the Act. As many Senators will be aware, a political donation is broadly defined and is taken to mean any contribution given for political purposes by any person, regardless of whether the person is a member of a political party, to a candidate standing for election, a serving politician, a political party or a third party. Such a donation may include all or any of the following: a donation of money; a donation of property or goods; the free use of property or goods; or the free supply of services; he difference between the usual commercial price and the lower price charged for the purchase, acquisition or use of property or goods or the supply of services where the price, fee or other consideration is less than the usual commercial price; and a contribution made by a person to a fundraising event organised for the purpose of raising funds for a candidate standing for election, a serving politician or a political party. The donation is that proportion of the contribution attributable to the net profit, if any, derived from the event. A donation can also be a payment by a person on his own behalf or on behalf of one person or more than one person of a fee or subscription for membership or continued membership of a political party. Finally, it also includes a donation in kind, that is to say, a person or organisation pays for work or expenses from its own resources outside of party funds. This is considered a donation in kind for the cost of work of the donee. Donations-in-kind or national donations are to be valued at the usual commercial price charged for the purchase, use or acquisition of the property or goods or the supply of services donated.
Where a monetary donation in excess of €100 is received, the recipient must open and maintain an account in a financial institution in the State. Any subsequent monetary donations, irrespective of value, must be lodged to that account. A donation statement must be furnished to SIPO by the deadlines prescribed in the Act. For serving politicians the deadline is by a date not later than 31 January in each year. For political parties the cut-off point is by a date not later than 31 March each year. We are all well familiar with this. A donation statement must show whether a political party received from the same person a donation exceeding €1,500 in the preceding calendar year. The corresponding amount for a candidate standing for election or a serving politician is €600. If a person makes multiple donations to the same political party or a serving politician, the aggregated amount applies. A number of statutory statements and supporting documents must also be submitted to SIPO in support of the transparency measures provided for under the Act.
The Act also prohibits the making or receipt of certain donations, including a donation exceeding the value of €100 if the name and address of the donor is not known; a cash donation exceeding the value of €200; a donation is prohibited from a body corporate or unincorporated body of persons that does not keep an office in the island of Ireland from which one or more of its principal activities is directed; a donation of whatever value from an individual other than an Irish citizen who resides outside the island of Ireland is prohibited; a donation exceeding the value of €200 in any calendar year from a corporate donor is prohibited unless the corporate donor is registered in the register of corporate donors maintained by SIPO and a statement on behalf of the corporate donor confirming that the making of the donation was approved by the corporate donor is furnished with the donation by the donee; or a donation or donations from the same donor in any calendar year exceeding, in the case of a candidate at an election or a serving politician, an aggregate value of €1,000, or in the case of a political party, an accounting unit of a political party, or a third party, an aggregate value of €2,500.
While the Act does not set an overall threshold in the number of donations that may be received, the amounts that can be received from individual donors are capped at an absolute maximum of €2,500. This is a point of significant difference from the position that applies in Northern Ireland and the wider United Kingdom, where there is no maximum threshold in respect of political donation. As I have already set out, donations from abroad are also prohibited unless made by Irish citizens resident outside the State. In Northern Ireland and the wider United Kingdom, the position of foreign donations is broadly similar to that which applies here in Ireland.
As I have outlined in the House previously, yesterday evening was the most recent occasion, my Department is currently finalising the general scheme of an electoral reform Bill which will establish an independent statutory electoral commission, provide for the modernisation of the election registration process, introduce new regulatory provisions to ensure transparency in online paid political advertising, which has been mentioned this evening, and facilitate the holding of electoral events during Covid-19 restrictions. The plans to establish an electoral commission are now at an advanced stage in my Department. In accordance with the commitment in the current programme for Government, Our Shared Future, it is intended that an electoral commission will be in place by the end of next year. My Department is working to meet this commitment and is confident that it can be met. With this in mind, the proposed general scheme of an electoral reform Bill will be brought to Government shortly for consideration.
It is envisaged that one of the initial functions assigned to an electoral commission following its establishment will be a policy research and advisory function, which will inform and advise the Government and the Oireachtas in the consideration of reform to our electoral laws. In this context, Senators may recall that the programme for Government commits the electoral commission, when established, to undertake a number of items of research, such as the use of posters at elections and referendums as well as the expansion of postal voting provisions. In addition, the Government is of the view that a comprehensive review of the Electoral Act 1997 is required and that the proposed electoral commission, once established, would be best placed to undertake such a review in an objective and independent manner. The purpose of the review is, in the first instance, to progress the commitment in the programme for Government to review current electoral laws and the conduct of politics in Ireland to ensure that donations and resources from non-citizens outside the State are not being utilised to influence our elections and political processes. We will legislate to prevent this if necessary. These are matters that are directly relevant to all political donation regimes as provided for in the Act. The review would inform the further transfer of functions to the electoral commission.
In accordance with international best practice and the recommendations of the former Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht in its report on the establishment of electoral commission, published in January 2016, it is proposed that the commission would have a limited set of functions during its initial set-up period. Nevertheless, it is intended that additional electoral functions will transfer into the commission as its capacity and experience builds over time.Some of the functions recommended for a later transfer by the aforesaid Oireachtas committee are those associated with political donations and electoral expenditure regimes as provided for in the Electoral Act.
Thirdly and finally, the review will assist in addressing a number of broader issues that have been raised in connection with the Act. This will include, for example: the concerns of civil society around the definition of "political purposes" which was debated in this House only last month by way of a Bill brought forward by Senator Ruane; the duration of election spending periods; the definition of a candidate; spending limits at referendums; and political party accounts for small Exchequer-funded parties. These are all issues which deserve careful consideration. Against the broad range of issues involved, as well as the complex and integrated nature of their interactions under the Electoral Act, it is considered that a comprehensive review of the Act in its entirety would deliver a better and more efficient outcome than a focus on foreign donations only, or a series of separate reviews on each of the individual issues just mentioned. Ultimately, it is envisaged that the proposed review by the electoral commission would deliver a wide range of recommendations which would aim, among other matters, to strengthen our electoral laws and to ensure that political donations and resources from non-citizens resident outside the State are not being used to influence our electoral and democratic processes. It is envisaged that the proposed review would be completed within a relatively short timeframe following the commission’s establishment.
In conclusion, the motion before us today seeks to address issues that are both complex and integral to maintaining transparency for our political donations regime and ensuring the integrity of our elections remain fair and free from any foreign or hidden influence. In this regard, the Government is committed to a full and comprehensive review of the Electoral Act 1997 by the electoral commission with a view to ensuring the necessary provisions are in place to prevent any undue influence on our political and democratic processes that may arise from the use of foreign donations and resources during and outside electoral periods.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as ucht a chúpla focal agus as ucht an tacaíocht don rún freisin. In bringing this motion before the House I sought to raise an issue that needs to be addressed by this House.
I agree with Members who expressed regret that we have used our Private Members' time to do this. I agree that it is regrettable that we have had to do it. I sought to do so on a party-to-party basis which is why this is being brought by the Fine Gael group. I did not seek to make it personal. I regret that Senator Ó Donnghaile did. He will, however, be pleased to know that the army of "shinnerbots", as we refer to them, the hordes of people who are online and constantly attack anybody who espouses a view contrary to Sinn Féin’s credo, have been very active. By the time I sat down there were many alerts on my phone which were a prelude to what he had to say himself. The confluence of words that were used by Senator Ó Donnghaile and the ones used online is perhaps a coincidence, but it is striking. Of course, they were also attacking me in respect of the issue that Senator Ó Donnghaile raised in his contribution about a complaint that was made about me to the Standards in Public Office Commission in 2010 or 2011. I thought it was somewhat cowardly of Senator Ó Donnghaile to essentially pose the question to me and then suggest that I was unable or unwilling in some way to answer it. I can assure the House that I do not have to answer it because the 2012 annual report of the Standards in Public Office Commission, on pages 22 and 23 if the Senator wishes to know, specifically exonerates me of any wrongdoing in respect of that matter. SIPO said there was no basis on which to pursue the matter. It wrote to the then Minister about it and concluded with the comment that there was a legal basis for what happened. I do not have anything to hide and like Senator McDowell, I am all about transparency. That appears to be at variance with the views of the Sinn Féin Members of this House, or should I say the Sinn Féin Member of this House, because only a single Senator from Sinn Féin has turned up to address this issue.
This is an issue and is something we should discuss. I believe it is something that almost all of us agree on because everybody in this House appears to agree that there must be transparency in political funding, that there must be an opportunity for the Standards in Public Office Commission to verify that all parties in this country, all parties in these Houses, are abiding by the same set of rules. Sinn Féin does not agree with that. Sinn Féin essentially puts itself beyond regulation in the attitude with which it approaches this donation which is an eye-wateringly large amount of money by anybody’s standards. It is an amount of money that would require 1,600 ordinary donors to any other party in this House. Sinn Féin deems itself beyond regulation – it does not need to comply with the rules of this State, it can go beyond that and through a sleight of hand, deem itself to be, for the purposes of this donation, a six-county party and a 26-county party.
There are serious questions to be answered on this in circumstances where, I think, every other party in this House struggles to fund its activities. I can tell the House that Fine Gael Deputies, Senators, councillors and activists throughout the country are currently desperately trying to sell tickets for the one opportunity we are going to have to raise funds this year. Fine Gael will beg, borrow and steal – from its members of course, not in any nefarious way - to fund its activities in the next election. In fact it will borrow to do that, hoping to be able to recoup that money in the following years by fundraising from its members and its supporters. That is the way we all operate but Sinn Féin seems to think it does not have to operate that way. It has already been said by other Members that it is the wealthiest party in this State by some distance. It is blessed with massive sets of assets and massive cash reserves. I suspect they are what fund the kinds of activities I referred to at the beginning of this debate.
Without wishing to draw the matter out any further, there are, as I have said, serious questions to be answered here. What is perhaps most remarkable about the contribution from the single Sinn Féin Member who attended this debate is that none of those questions was answered. No explanation has been given and no assurance has been given. Therefore, at the end of this debate we remain in the same position as the Standards in Public Office Commission, in that we do not know and have been given no assurance that this enormous amount of money which is coming into Sinn Féin’s coffers will not be used to compete with Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, the Green Party and all of the other parties that make up the Houses of the Oireachtas. We do not have any of those assurances because they cannot be given. As was said by Senator Seery Kearney, this is particularly the case in the realm of social media and online content which we cannot control. That is the reality and it is on that basis I commend the motion to the House. I hope Senators will support it.
You might direct me. Just to keep the record accurate, I would like it if you could inform the House that, under the current restrictions, Sinn Féin is only allowed one seat in this Chamber for debates and that is why there is one Senator here.
In accordance with the agreements of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, the seating allocation was one seat for Sinn Féin, two for the Labour Party, two for Independents, one for the Civil Engagement Group and then the Government parties. That is the current arrangement and is a point of order.
May I clarify the situation, a Chathaoirligh. My understanding was, and I was informed, that tellers would not be instructed from either side regarding this vote. It was on that basis that I agreed not to appoint tellers because the voice vote was sufficient. However, if tellers were appointed for one side of the vote that is not what I was informed. I do not want to be problematic. I entered into that in good faith. That was not my understanding.
I wanted to make that point for the purposes of the record. I have a further point I wish to make which I think is important for the purposes of the record. During the course of the debate Senator Ward advised the----
That is a different issue. A point of order should be on the procedure in front of us. Tellers have been appointed for the Tá side. If no tellers are appointed by the Níl side, and I will allow tellers to be appointed, then the motion will be carried.
Garret Ahearn, Niall Blaney, Malcolm Byrne, Micheál Carrigy, Pat Casey, Shane Cassells, Lorraine Clifford-Lee, Martin Conway, Emer Currie, Paul Daly, Aisling Dolan, Timmy Dooley, Mary Fitzpatrick, Robbie Gallagher, Róisín Garvey, Sharon Keogan, Seán Kyne, Tim Lombard, Vincent P Martin, Michael McDowell, John McGahon, Erin McGreehan, Rebecca Moynihan, Fiona O'Loughlin, Joe O'Reilly, Pauline O'Reilly, Ned O'Sullivan, Mary Seery Kearney, Marie Sherlock, Barry Ward, Diarmuid Wilson.