Bankrolling restrictions on religion

Bankrolling restrictions on religion SIPO Offices in Dublin

Recent days have seen some bizarre reports in Irish media about a campaign group which shut down last year following complaints to the State’s ethics watchdog that it was being illegally bankrolled to the tune of over €400,000. Irish electoral law bars organisations engaged in political campaigning from receiving over €2,500 from any one donor in any calendar year.

The Irish Catholic reported this February that Equate: Equality in Education, an organisation founded in October 2015 to change the Equal Status Act so oversubscribed Church-owned schools could not prioritise their own members, had been forced to close after complaints to the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) about funding from a foundation headed by Declan Ryan, son of Ryanair founder Tony Ryan.

The Sunday Business Post, however, reported on Sunday, October 14, that in July 2017 SIPO gave Equate a “clean bill of health”, claiming SIPO documents show Equate had not contravened campaign funding laws, but was nonetheless forced to wind down after continued complaints by a Church of Ireland member who was working as a consultant and adviser for the Church of Ireland on school admissions at the time.

The next day The Irish Times reported Equate as claiming a campaign of “groundless” complaints from “vested interests” had contributed to its demise.


The claims come against a background of Mr Barron just weeks ago describing constitutional protections for religious bodies as “barriers to progress” and reviving in The Irish Independent the idea – previously raised in a February 2017 Equate-organised conference – of nationalising Church-owned schools and hospitals.

They are, however, contradicted by documents SIPO has released to The Irish Catholic: in a letter of July 20, 2017, SIPO quoted the Electoral Act 1997 and stated that a document supplied by Equate to the commission “clearly indicate that most of the core objectives of Equate fit within the Act’s definition of ‘political purpose’”.

“I draw particular attention to the fact that Equate are seeking to influence the outcome of a campaign and the Department of Education with regard to national education policy,” the letter continued.

Far from SIPO being satisfied with Equate’s responses and the case being closed, it was only this January, after Education Equality – trading as Equate – had been granted voluntary strike off with the Companies Registration Office, that SIPO closed the case.

Atheist Ireland chairperson Michael Nugent was the first person to share concerns about Equate with SIPO,  claiming in a January 24, 2017, letter that his organisation’s work was being “undermined by political lobbying by other groups who have access to funding that we would be concerned about accepting”.

He detailed some aspects of Equate’s lobbying, relating how he had been told by Mr Barron that Equate was in receipt of €200,000 per year from the One Foundation, whose founder Mr Ryan was on Equate’s advisory board. He asked whether Equate was registered as a Third Party with SIPO, how an organisation ostensibly closed since 2013 could be funding a lobbying group, whether the One Foundation should be registered as a corporate donor, and whether SIPO should ask Equate to return at least the amount exceeding the €2,500 legal limit for corporate donors.

SIPO subsequently contacted the One Foundation and Equate, the former replying that it did not believe it needed to apply for registration as a corporate donor as Equate was not a political office holder, candidate or party, and Mr Barron stating that as Equate was “an educational organisation, funded for educational purposes”, it did not believe its funding fell within the definition of “political purpose”.

Two days later, on February 16, an individual, understood to be a member of the Church of Ireland, submitted a formal and detailed complaint to SIPO, claiming that Equate had contravened electoral law in a number of ways notably by accepting donations from the same donor exceeding the aggregate value of €2,500 in a calendar year.

SIPO contacted Equate to arrange a meeting, detailing the complaint in writing afterwards and asking for a reply with comments on the allegations by March 6.

In the meantime, the One Foundation said it was working on a full response to SIPO’s letter in connection with Mr Nugent’s queries. It subsequently stated that it did not provide funding for political campaigns, and that as Equate, with which it had “an ongoing and recurring funding relationship”, did not regard itself as having accepted a donation for political purposes it believed there was no need to be registered as a corporate donor.

Mr Barron wrote to SIPO on March 16, reiterating that Equate had never accepted donations for political purposes and denying that it was running a campaign regarding access to education.

On May 22, however, SIPO asked to see Equate’s most recent financial records, and Mr Barron supplied draft accounts for the year ended December 31, 2016. Said accounts, due to be presented at Equate’s forthcoming AGM, identified the organisation as having received €72,400 in donations from the One Foundation in 2015 and €259,200 in 2016.

With the One Foundation identified as the organisation’s sole funder, and with these figures apparently at odds with the €200,000 Mr Barron has told The Irish Times it was giving Equate each year (and perhaps the €150,000 agreed upon in a March 16, 2017 letter of commitment), it is perhaps not surprising that SIPO wrote to Mr Barron on May 30, asking to see Equate’s bank statements for 2016.

Following phone conversations in late June, Mr Barron told SIPO on June 30 that he and Equate’s board were in discussions about how best to proceed with SIPO’s request for bank statements.

July 20 saw SIPO informing the One Foundation that Equate was clearly seeking to influence a political campaign and Government policy, and asking what the precise purpose of One’s funding for Equate was and what it meant by the term “political purpose” in its letter of commitment to Equate.

Having received no answer from foundation, SIPO reiterated these requests in a letter of August 21, the following day again asking Equate to supply the bank statements first requested almost three months earlier. Mr Barron said the matter would be discussed at Equate’s September board meeting.

October saw SIPO still chasing both organisations, in an October 11 letter to the One Foundation citing electoral law to the effect that failure to comply with SIPO’s request within a directed time period constitutes an offence and requesting an answer by close of business on October 25, and on October 12 asking Mr Barron yet again for bank statements, repeating this request on October 18.

The One Foundation sought an extension until November 10, at which point it said that it understood “political purpose” as having the same meaning as in the 1997 act and stating that its funding for Equate had not been intended for political purposes.

It was against this background that discussions took place between Mr Barron and SIPO in October and November, Mr Barron explaining that Equate would cease formal trading on November 30. He wrote to Equate on November 24 to assure the ethics watchdog that when this happened, he would supply it with confirmation and evidence of it being wound up.

On December 6, SIPO confirmed it had received this evidence, and asked when Equate’s website would be taken down.

It is very difficult to see why such evidence should have been necessary, or why SIPO would have thought it appropriate to ask such a question about the website, if the ethics watchdog had ever given Equate a clean bill of health.

Still, the damage had been done:  last week the Oireachtas passed legislation denying oversubscribed schools owned by Catholic parishes and institutions the right to prioritise Catholic children in enrolment.

Anyone who wonders how much it costs to buy an Irish law will be left wondering, however, since it appears that despite numerous requests, SIPO was never supplied with Equate’s bank statements.