Tuesday 24 April 2018

Amnesty challenges order to return €137,000 for Eighth Amendment referendum campaign

Counsel said Amnesty told SIPO the donation was not for political purposes. Stock image
Counsel said Amnesty told SIPO the donation was not for political purposes. Stock image

Tim Healy

Amnesty International's Irish section has brought a High Court challenge against a Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) order that it return a Swiss based foundation's donation of  €137,000 for a campaign to increase support for a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Constitution.

The donation was made in August 2015 by the Open Society Foundations (OSF), a body founded by businessman George Soros, for the Irish based strand of Amnesty's international "My Body, Mr Rights" campaign.

The objectives of the campaign included increasing support among politicians for the holding of a referendum on the Eighth Amendment and provide a human rights compliant abortion framework.

The campaign included lobbying politicians, organising events and seminars for politicians prior to the 2016 General Election aimed at having the 8th Amendment appealed.

Last November, SIPO directed Amnesty to return the donation as it found it was prohibited under Section 23 A2 of the 1997 Electoral Act and having deemed it to be a donation for political purposes. 

Amnesty denies the funds were used for political purposes and says SIPO's decision is flawed, and should be set aside.

As a result, Amnesty International Irish Section has brought proceedings against both SIPO, Ireland and the Attorney General where it seeks to quash SIPO's decision.

It also seeks several declarations including that SIPO has acted in error of law, in excess of its jurisdiction, misdirected itself as to the interpretation of the Electoral Act, has failed to give adequate reasons for its decision, and has acted irrationally and unreasonably.

It further seeks declarations that it should not have to repay the monies, that SIPO has breached both Articles 40. 3 and 43 of the Irish Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights and EU law.

On Monday Brian Murray SC, for Amnesty, said the challenge raises many complex legal issues concerning the interpretation of the Electoral Act.

"Amnesty and other NGO's  are extremely concerned about the implications of the decision," counsel said.

Counsel said the purpose of the donation was to fund Amnesty's  2016 campaign whose purpose included to increase public support for repealing the 8th Amendment, collaborate with other groups working on access to safe and legal abortion.

No referendum on the amendment was planned or had been called when the donation was made, counsel said.

Counsel said in 2016 media reports on leaked documents from OPF suggested that the funding was part of a strategy to force the repeal of the 8th Amendment. SIPO then wrote to Amnesty referring to obligations under the Electoral Act.

Counsel said Amnesty told SIPO the donation was not for political purposes.

However, SIPO said received information and confirmation from the foreign donor that the monies were for explicitly political purposes.

Amnesty fears the matter could be referred to the Garda, leading to a possible criminal prosecution, if if does not  not return the monies. 

It also fears reputational damage and financial hardship as Amnesty does not have any significant reserves. The return of the monies would have to come out of its current budget for 2018, counsel added.

Permission to bring the challenge was granted, on an ex-parte (one side only represented) basis, by Mr Justice Seamus Noonan.  The matter comes back to court in April.

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