SIPO concerned with powers to monitor groups in abortion debate

Sunday 26 May 2013 19.07
SIPO has expressed concern over the agency's power to monitor groups involved in the current abortion debate
SIPO has expressed concern over the agency's power to monitor groups involved in the current abortion debate

Standards in Public Office Commission Chairman Justice Matthew Smith has expressed concern over the agency's power to monitor groups involved in the current abortion debate.

According to correspondence seen by RTÉ, the chairman of the political spending watchdog, has written to the Government seeking greater powers to sanction so-called 'third parties' which do not cooperate with inquiries.

A third party is any group or individual, other than a registered political party or an election candidate, which accepts a donation above a certain value for political purposes.

In the letter, written on 14 May, retired High Court Judge Smith asked Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan to consider widespread changes to its powers under the Electoral Acts.

SIPO has written to a number of organisations in recent months which it believes may be operating as third parties, the majority of which are engaged in the current abortion debate.

These include Action on X as well the Life Institute, Family and Life and Youth Defence.

Action on X told RTÉ that it intends to register but had not yet done so.

Family and Life and Youth Defence did not reply when contacted by RTÉ.

Niamh Ui Bhrian of the Life Institute said that her organisation did not believe it needed to register as it was a human rights organisation.

SIPO also wrote to the Socialist Workers Party. A spokesman said the party had not yet registered but it intended to do so.

In the letter, Mr Justice Smith said that the current debate on abortion had "highlighted the ineffectiveness of the existing provisions and makes it impossible for the Commission to operate effectively in this area".

Mr Justice Smith noted that the government was planning a new electoral bill in 2014 and indicated that this could be an opportunity to introduce reforms of the law governing how Sipo operates.

Dr Jane Suiter, political scientist at Dublin City University's school of communications said SIPO had repeatedly called for stronger powers for over a decade.

She said that Mr Justice Smith's letter amounted to giving the Government a deadline for action on the issue.

Under the current Electoral Acts, the commission had no effective power to sanction anyone who they believed had not cooperated with the commission, she said.

Professor Justin Fisher of London's Brunel University said that third parties in the UK were regulated by an Electoral Commission which were given heightened powers of sanction in 2009.

He said this change had proven beneficial to the monitoring of third parties in the UK.

A spokesman for the minister confirmed that the letter had been received.

"This correspondence is being considered in the Department and Minister Hogan will respond directly to the Chairman," a spokesperson for the department said.

Keaveney will not support abortion bill

Labour Party chairman and Galway East TD Colm Keaveney has said he can not support the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 as it currently stands.

In an article on thejournal.ie, Mr Keaveney said the main concerns he had were contained in Head 4 – those relating to the risk of loss of life from self-destruction.

“The idea that a baby, as anticipated in the Heads of Bill, would be intentionally delivered prematurely, which would leave it at risk of disability, and placed in an incubator under the care of the State is seems somewhat dystopian to me,” he said.

He said the situation arises because there is no limit at what stage of pregnancy that a termination may be carried out.

He also said there was a danger the bill would normalise suicide.

When asked about Mr Keaveney’s stance on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics, Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte said: “I think Colm Keaveney says he is chairman of the Labour Party, a party that has resolved and decided to legislate for the X Case. And that’s all we’re doing.”