Amnesty International's High Court challenge against the Standards in Public Office Commission's order to return a Swiss-based foundation's donation of €137,000 for a campaign to increase support for a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment has been resolved.
As part of the settlement agreement, the High Court heard that SIPO now accepts its decision that the donation was for political purposes and must be returned was "procedurally flawed".
Last November SIPO ordered Amnesty to return a donation made in August 2015 by the Open Society Foundations (OSF), a body founded by businessman George Soros, for Amnesty’s "My Body, My Rights" campaign.
SIPO told Amnesty to return the monies after finding the donation was prohibited under Section 23 A2 of the 1997 Electoral Act after deeming it to be a donation for political purposes.
Amnesty denied the funds were used for political purposes and in its High Court proceedings said SIPO's decision was flawed and should be set aside.
Mr Maurice Collins, SC for SIPO, told Mr Justice Seamus Noonan the matter had been resolved following discussions between the parties.
As part of the settlement, counsel read extracts from a letter from SIPO to Amnesty stating that "the Commission had concluded that the process leading to the adoption of the decision communicated in its decision in November 2017 was procedurally flawed" and "considers it appropriate" to consent to the order quashing the decision.
The letter also addressed a press release issued by SIPO in December 2013, which Amnesty had raised in its action.
The letter stated that: "Arising from third-party complaints the Commission made inquiries with Amnesty relating to the OSF grant. SIPO acknowledges that Amnesty cooperated fully with the Commission and responded to these inquiries.
"The Commission confirms that at no point did the OSF advice the Commission that the donation was for political purposes within the meaning of the Electoral Act 1997."
SIPO added it does not intend to take any further steps with regard to the OSF grant, and "will be closing its investigation file in respect of this grant".
The Commission also agreed to pay a contribution towards Amnesty's legal costs.
Arising out of SIPO's decision Amnesty International Irish Section CLG had brought judicial review proceedings against both SIPO, Ireland and the Attorney General aimed at quashing the demand it returns the donation.
Amnesty claimed it and other NGOs were extremely concerned about the implications of the decision.
It feared the matter could be referred to the gardaí, leading to a possible criminal prosecution, if it did not return the donation.
Amnesty said the purpose of the donation was to fund Amnesty's 2016 campaign to increase public support for repealing the Eighth Amendment, collaborate with other groups working on access to safe and legal abortion.
The campaign's objectives included increasing support among politicians for the holding of a referendum on the Eight Amendment and provide a human rights compliant abortion framework.
The campaign also included lobbying politicians and organising events and seminars for politicians before the 2016 General Election aimed at having the Eight Amendment appealed.
No referendum on the Eight Amendment was planned or had been called when the donation was made it was claimed.
In 2016 media reports on leaked documents from OSF suggested that the funding was part of a strategy to force the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. SIPO then wrote to Amnesty referring to obligations under the Electoral Act.
The Commission said it received information and confirmation from the foreign donor that the monies were for explicitly political purposes.
Amnesty's lawyers said the OSF disputed that it provided written confirmation that the donation was for political purposes, and said that SIPO seemed to base its decision on an internal document for discussion that was made public after OSF was hacked by Russians.
In a statement following the decision, Amnesty said it was pleased the case had been resolved, and the decision has been quashed. It said that it was vindicated in its decision to challenge the decision.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International has said it hopes the Government will reform the Electoral Act.
Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, the Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland Colm O'Gorman said he was very pleased that the organisation had been vindicated.
Mr O'Gorman said however, that his concern was always the "vague wording" of the law itself.
He said the act was so broadly written that anybody who is seeking to influence or procure an outcome in relation to any policy of the Government or any other State authority is "captured by the act".
Mr O’Gorman said the restrictions this places on sources of funding are huge and catastrophic.
He said it was open to being used by people who might oppose the work of an organisation for ideological reasons.
Mr O'Gorman said Amnesty International hopes that the Government would now move to amend this legislation.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has welcomed the outcome of the challenge, saying that it "demonstrates emphatically that laws intended to regulate undue foreign influence on election campaigning cannot be applied to the more general advocacy work of civil society."
ICCL Director Liam Herrick said the case shows the law in this area is unworkable and must be changed.