Amnesty Ireland has refused a demand to return €137,000 donated by an American billionaire so it could campaign against Ireland’s pro-life laws.
The November 17 instruction from the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) comes almost exactly a year after the ethics watchdog directed the Abortion Rights Campaign to return its grant, originally worth almost €23,000, from the New York-based Open Society Foundation (OSF), as reported in The Irish Catholic this March.
Failure to comply would be a criminal offence under Irish electoral law, which defines ‘third parties’ as all those who accept for political purposes donations worth €100 or more, requires third parties to register with SIPO, and forbids third parties from receiving foreign funding for political campaigns in Ireland.
In August 2016 The Irish Independent reported that OSF, a grantmaking network bankrolled by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, was funding organisations seeking to widen abortion access worldwide, with a leaked strategy document revealing that among the OSF’s aims was the targeting of Article 40.3.3 of the Irish constitution.
The document expressed an intention of funding the Abortion Rights Campaign, Amnesty International Ireland, and the Irish Family Planning Association to work on a campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, in the hope that this could influence legal change in other strongly Catholic countries.
Asked in August 2016 to supply SIPO with its application for OSF funding, Amnesty released its grant agreement and a summary of project activities, but appears to have withheld – and been allowed to withhold – the requested application. This was despite the Abortion Rights Campaign’s application having revealed its plan to use OSF funding to build support for changing the Constitution.
Amnesty Ireland’s CEO Colm O’Gorman claimed at the time that because human rights work is not work for “political purposes”, Amnesty, which deregistered from SIPO in January 2016, does not generally consider itself as being under SIPO’s jurisdiction.
The Pro Life Campaign accused Amnesty of “hiding behind ‘human rights’ language instead of openly accepting that they are running a highly political campaign to dismantle the Eighth Amendment”.
During 2016, Amnesty Ireland spent €160,687 on campaigning for what it called a “human rights compliant abortion law”, and registered approximately 20 instances where it lobbied Oireachtas members about abortion. In almost every case, these lobbying cases were registered with the SIPO-maintained ‘Register of Lobbying’ as intended to influence legislation and party policies on health, not as human rights lobbying.
Amnesty has said it does not intend to comply with the law, claiming that it is ‘draconian’, contravening Ireland’s international human rights obligations and violating freedoms of expression and association.