Atheist Ireland is pleased that the Seanad did not pass a Bill yesterday that would have enabled people and groups other than politicians to raise money for political purposes without the safeguards in the SIPO laws. Several Senators quoted concerns raised by Atheist Ireland.
Instead, the arguments for and against the Bill will be considered when the Government introduces a wider law to set up an Electoral Commission, with a target date of the end of 2021. Atheist Ireland has already made a submission to the consultation process on this new Commission.
The proposers of the Bill framed it as if it was about protecting small voluntary civil society groups from being unable to lobby politically, or even unable to do other service work unrelated to lobbying. Neither of these concerns are valid. Atheist Ireland is a small voluntary civil society group and we can do both of these things without any problems.
In reality what the Bill would have done is enable politically active religions including the Catholic Church that runs most of our schools and its allies, some larger and wealthier civil society groups whose aims we agree with, and far-right activists with whom we strongly disagree, to have access to even more big money to spend on lobbying decision-makers between elections. They and their wealthy donors would have even more undue influence on our democracy, which would be bad whether or not we agree with their aims.
Some of the arguments made in support of the Bill were either inaccurate or based on incomplete information. We will publish an analysis of these points once the full transcript of the debate is published. We will also engage with Minister Malcolm Noonan who is responsible for the Electoral Commission Bill, and all TDs and Senators including the Seanad Civil Engagement group.
Three of the eleven Senators who contributed to the debate highlighted concerns raised by Atheist Ireland in our submission to them on the issue. They were Senator Sean Kyne of Fine Gael, Independent Senator Ronan Mullen, and Senator Ivana Bacik of the Labour Party.
Senator Sean Kyne of Fine Gael said:
“I would not often quote Atheist Ireland, but it is right and proper to read the submission it has made. It has a contrarian view, and it feels that it is old-fashioned and authoritarian to regard democracy as happening only during elections. This is a valid point.
It also feels that wealthier civil society groups and far-right activists, with whom they would disagree, will all have access to even more big money to spend on lobbying decision-makers between elections. It argues that these groups and their wealthy donors will have even more undue influence on our democracy, which is bad, whether one agrees with their aims or not.
This is a valid point that should be taken into account and teased out in the discussions on Committee Stage, whenever that may be.”
Independent Senator Ronan Mullen said:
“Senators will have received an interesting submission on the Bill from Atheist Ireland, as Senator Kyne has said, one such civil society group and not one which I regularly quote. I have to say that I am experiencing a frisson of excitement as I quote it. In fact, it might do wonders for my social life once Covid is out of the way. Atheist Ireland make an interesting point when it says that the law as it stands:
‘helps us, not hinders us, by trying to make democracy a battle of ideas not bank accounts. It does not prevent any civil society group from raising money. We just have to raise it in small donations from the many, not large donations from the few. This is good for democracy, not bad.’
Fair play to Atheist Ireland for putting it so clearly. Does that not bring us to the nub of the issue?”
Senator Ivana Bacik of the Labour Party said:
“I know that Government speakers have identified flaws and that Atheist Ireland has corresponded with us about flaws that it suggests are in the Bill but Private Members’ Bills can be amended on Committee and Report Stages….
There are useful suggestions coming through, for example, looking at the charities legislation and amending definitions there, rather than necessarily just using this sort of legislation. The Charities Act could be amended to enable promotion of human rights under the category that currently protects religious organisations.”
Atheist Ireland will soon publish an analysis of the various contributions made by Senators.