The SIPO law was strengthened in 2015 to deal with Youth Defence. It needs to be strengthened further.
The SIPO law was strengthened in 2015, to deal with Youth Defence’s refusal to comply with it, after Youth Defence had published billboard advertisements showing images of young, distraught women and foetuses, and carrying slogans such as ‘Abortion tears her life apart.’
It is now essential that the SIPO law is strengthened further, not weakened or subverted in a way that allows anti-choice groups to flood the country with more unlawful donations in the run-up to the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment.
The SIPO Commission sought this increase in its powers of enforcement in 2013, in order to be able to take action against Youth Defence. In 2015 SIPOC got new powers, making it an offence to fail to co-operate with enquiries made by the Commission.
It is this strengthening of the law, in response to Youth Defence, that has enabled SIPOC to implement the law more robustly since 2015. Since then, SIPOC can now get or confirm evidence that they were previously unable to follow up on effectively.
The SIPO law still needs to be strengthened further. The trigger for being accountable should be moved away from political donations, and towards political spending. Atheist Ireland and the SIPO Commission have both called for this extra strengthening of the law.
Background to the new SIPO powers
In 2012, Youth Defence published billboard advertisements showed images of young, distraught women and foetuses, and carrying slogans such as ‘Abortion tears her life apart,’ and ‘There’s always a better answer,’ with the word ‘always’ underlined.
The Advertising Standards Authority received more than 100 complaints about Youth Defence’s billboard ads, which were described as ‘offensive and inaccurate’. However, the Advertising Standards Authority said it was powerless to do anything about the concerns because banning the ads would amount to a breach of freedom of speech.
SIPOC then received complaints about Youth Defence refusing to register as a Third Party. SIPOC said that it was ‘firmly of the view’ that the activities of Youth Defence could be defined as ‘political purposes,’ but that it did not have the legal powers to force Youth Defence to furnish any information or documents that the Commission needed to do its work.
In 2013, SIPOC wrote to Phil Hogan, the then environment minister, seeking an increase in its powers of enforcement over organisations involved in political activity. SIPOC’s chairman, Justice Matthew Smith, told Minister Hogan that it was ‘impossible for the commission to operate effectively’ in the area of abortion campaigning.
The 2015 amendment to the Electoral Act
In 2015, Section 5 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2015 made it an offence to fail to co-operate with enquiries made by the Commission. It did this by amending Section 4 of the Electoral Acts 1997.
Section 4 previously read:
4.4. The Public Offices Commission may make such inquiries as it considers appropriate and may require any person to furnish any information, document or thing in the possession or procurement of the person which the Commission may require for the purposes of its duties under this Act.
The amendment added:
4.4 (a) Where a person fails to comply with a requirement made of him or her under subsection (4) within such time as the Standards in Public Office Commission considers reasonable, it may direct the person to furnish it with such information, document or thing specified in the direction within such period of time mentioned in the direction and, if the person fails to comply with the direction within that period, the person commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a class D fine.
SIPOC welcomed this in its 2015 annual report, saying that:
The Standards Commission welcomes the amendment of Section 4 of the Electoral Acts 1997 as amended. The Commission had previously requested that sanctions for non-cooperation with the Standards Commission should be reviewed (2009 Report on Third Parties at the Referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon 2008). In particular, the Commission had recommended that failure to cooperate with enquiries made by the Standards Commission under section 4(4) of the Electoral Act should constitute an offence. Section 5 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2015 now makes it an offence to fail to co-operate with enquiries made by the Commission.
The further SIPO powers that are still needed
With the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment on its way, it is now essential that the SIPO law is strengthened further, not weakened or subverted in a way that allows anti-choice groups to flood the country with more unlawful donations.
This can be done by setting a different trigger for when a body must declare their funders. This now happens when a body gets certain donations that are described as being for a political purpose.
Instead it should happen when a body spends a certain amount on political purposes. The SIPO Commission itself has recommended this change, and has suggested €5,000 as the amount of spending that would trigger accountability under the Act.
The Commission has noted in previous annual reports the difficulties with the current legislative provisions with respect to Third Party registration…. The test is to do with the intent of the giver rather than the use of funds by the recipient.
The Commission is of the view that the definition of what constitutes a ‘Third Party’ should not be determined on the basis of whether an individual/group has received a donation, but rather should focus on spending by the individual/group.