Democratic life is not just about voting. It’s in freedoms we take for granted and we assume have nothing to do with political life. Let me mention some unlikely examples.

You’ve been told to make your final arrangements because your cancer is now out of control. You sit to finalise your last will and decide to leave some money to a charity that helps fund research to find a cure for the disease that’s killing you. You won’t be able to confirm for yourself that the money has made its way to the charity you have chosen but you trust your wishes will be respected after you die.

Less final but significant. You live in a village with two rival band clubs. Each year they drop an empty envelope in your house telling you they’ll be coming to collect a donation some days later. You’re not a fan of either but out of duty to the community you usually put some money in both envelopes. This has been a tough year. COVID-19 meant you weren’t working, and what money you have you want to spend on essentials, which the festa, in your mind, isn’t. But you don’t want the clubs to know you’re not helping this year. It’s a matter of pride and principle.

Another scenario. You have strong opinions about the way roads are built where fields have been ploughed for centuries. But your job and your family commitments do not allow you to sleep and stand in the way of bulldozers and yellow metal. So, you give some money to the activists who do, if nothing else to buy themselves some food and a sleeping bag while they’re there on your behalf.

Scenario four. Your ma, widow, lives alone. Most winters she has to stay inside. All the summer nights of her life she met her friends on the waterfront for repetitive but comforting chats. Every Wednesday the parish organises a bingo. It’s €5 to play. Line wins €25. House wins €60. She’s never won House in her life. But that’s not the point. It’s about the company. And the kappillan is left with a little extra which he spends on flowers for Sunday mass. Company, fun and pleasing God, all for €5.

And a final scenario in a set of five. You want to educate your children to think of others, not just of themselves. So you teach them to remember the needy when they spend their pocket money at the local shop. There’s a piggy bank by the cash register that was already there when you were their age spending your pocket money. You teach your kids to throw the spare change in there. At the end of the year it goes to the Community Chest Fund.

Being able to do this is democratic life.

If the government is serious about fighting financial crime, it must make voluntary organisations its partners in the effort- Manuel Delia

A new law introduced without any consultation last September and only now being slow­ly discovered by the volunteers that organise the collections described above, pro­­mises to restrict, if not abolish these activities. The volunteers are discovering these restrictions because they are being threatened with fines, even prison, for activities they thought of as their way of loving their neighbours and now they discover are serious crimes.

The official reason for the new law is that there are money launderers who create voluntary organisations you never heard of to wash proceeds of their crimes. It is true. These phantom organisations exist. But they are not your local band club, the karate nursery where your child goes, the cancer hospice foundation you want to leave your money to, or the protest group campaigning to keep buildings within development zones.

And yet, these organisations you love are being presumed money launderers and burdened with impossible rules that force them to justify every move they make to a government focused on them instead of the real criminals.

A poppy appeal jar stuffed with coins is not going to be enough for a cartel drug lord who wants to launder several million euros. And yet the new laws are about the poppy appeal jar, criminalising the pensioner who stretches it out towards you in Republic Street as if she was carrying a sidearm.

The government must indeed deny financial criminals the legal vehicle of a voluntary organisation. As it must deny other vehicles. Consider restaurants. Have you wondered why lavish restaurants sometimes close before their first anniversary, re-decorate opulently before re-opening, serve great food for surprising prices and yet are often half empty? Yep, they’re probably a money laundering front for some Italian cosca.

What do we do now? Nationalise all restaurants? Require every waiter or cleaner or kitchen hand in every restaurant get their police conduct certificate every three months? Seal restaurants’ cash registers and order that they are only opened and the money inside counted when a government official is present?

Ridiculous, right? That’s what the new laws say voluntary organisations must do.

The government has given itself keys that rightly belong to the people: keys to a free, vibrant and autonomous civil society; a voluntary sector that does not wait for instructions from the government but works to make life better for people.

This new law must be rescinded. And if the government is serious about fighting financial crime, it must make voluntary organisations its partners in the effort, not the victims of its misguided, incompetent policies.

Repubblika will be briefing NGOs on the new law and what can be done about it at an online seminar on April 19 at 7pm. Members of NGOs and volunteers are invited to register to participate on repubblika.events@gmail.com.

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