Funding a softening-up campaign

Funding a softening-up campaign
Greg Daly wonders why the ethics watchdog has sanctioned just one pro-abortion group

That an organisation calling itself the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) should ever have denied that it was engaged in political activities seems, on the face of it, absurd, and it is hardly surprising that it was ultimately forced to face this reality. What’s more interesting, in some ways, is that Amnesty International Ireland escaped the same fate.

In August 2016, The Irish Independent ran a story that the Open Society Foundation (OSF), a grantmaking network established and funded by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, was providing financial backing to organisations campaigning to widen abortion access worldwide. Among these, according to a leaked document, were three Irish-based groups.

A strategy document for the OSF’s Women’s Rights Programme stated that among the foundation’s strategic aims for the period 2016-2019 was work to “advance sexual and reproductive rights”, adding, as though Ireland’s constitutional protections for the unborn had been a recent addition to our law, “Specifically, we will challenge the wave of legislation valuing a foetus ‘equally’ or more highly than a pregnant woman, like in Ireland’s constitutional amendment.”

To do this, the document stated: “We will fund the Abortion Rights Campaign, Amnesty International Ireland, and the Irish Family Planning Association to work collectively on a campaign to repeal Ireland’s constitutional amendment granting equal rights to an implanted embryo as the pregnant woman (referred to as ‘foetal personhood’).

“With one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world,” the documented continued, “a win there could impact other strongly Catholic countries in Europe, such as Poland, and provide much-needed proof that change is possible, even in highly conservative places. The recent legalisation of same-sex marriage offers valuable and timely opportunities to advance the campaign.”

Difficult position

Assuming the leaked document was genuine and reflected reality, it would seem, therefore, that three Irish-based bodies had at the very least put themselves into a difficult position in terms of Irish electoral law, working as they had allegedly done with a foreign body and with foreign money to change Ireland’s constitution.

Under the terms of the Electoral Act 1997, a ‘third party’ is defined as someone who accepts for political purposes a donation exceeding €100 in value, with all such third parties being obliged to register with the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO).

The act bars third parties from receiving such donations from individuals – other than Irish citizens – who reside outside the island of Ireland or an institution which does not maintain on the island of Ireland an office from which it carries on one or more of its main activities.

The act understands ‘political purposes’ in four different ways, one of which is the direct or indirect promotion or opposition of “the interests of a third party in connection with the conduct or management of any campaign conducted with a view to promoting or procuring a particular outcome in relation to a policy or policies or functions of the Government or any public authority.”

Of the three organisations named in the Independent article, ARC had always looked the least forthcoming: Amnesty International said the funding it had received from the billionaire amounted to €137,000 over two years with this being publicly reported to members and on their website, and having been used for the programme of work outlined in the funding application; the Irish Family Planning Association said it received a support grant of €132,000 to support its “long-standing advocacy to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights in Ireland”; but ARC did not disclose how much it had received, saying this would be included in its financial statements, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act

Faced with SIPO requests from August 2016 to reveal its funding application and other correspondence with OSF, ARC consistently showed a reluctant face, initially stating that funding for political purposes had already been revealed, and that “with respect to the non-political activities of the Abortion Rights Campaign such as education and awareness raising, donations and funds received are held in a separate bank account”.

After the request was repeated, ARC cited the European Convention on Human Rights’ protections of freedom of association, saying “the autonomy of NGOs is a key component of the right to associate and one which is undermined by your broad and invasive request”, and maintaining that a grant of  $24,999  received in January 2016 was not for political purposes, and supplying SIPO with their grant application and other correspondence would violate the ECHR  and could raise confidentiality issues.

They concluded by saying they would be happy to cooperate with “less draconian requests”.

Yet again, SIPO wrote to them, saying that if the requested documentation hadn’t been submitted by November 11, they would refer the matter to An Garda Síochána.

On November 11, ARC replied, supplying the requested documentation at last, but saying that they believed the way the law was being applied would interfere with and violate the rights of most charities and NGOs operating in Ireland, noting that when they signed up with SIPO in 2013, “at no point did we anticipate or consider that activities of the nature funded by OSF would ever be considered ‘political’ or within the confines of restricted activity carried out by a ‘third party’”.

In its response of November 25, SIPO reiterated the law and noted that ARC’s application letter could hardly have been more specific.

In responding to the question, “What are you applying for?”, ARC had stated: “Purpose of project – to engage, energise, mobilise and provide self-education opportunities on issues of sexual health, reproductive rights and abortion in Ireland with a strategic goal of garnering support for repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, reducing abortion stigma, and increasing grass roots engagement.”

The repeal campaign – even in this extended, indirect sense – clearly falls within the definition of political purpose, and since OSF has no Irish office the law had been broken and the money should be returned.

ARC subsequently infor-med SIPO that without pre-judice to the watchdog’s analysis, which it rejected, it had returned the donation to OSF.

What is not clear, however, is why the other two investigated bodies did not ultimately face the same treatment.

Granted, the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) explicitly told SIPO it was not engaged in campaigning relating to the Eighth Amendment,  but given how it told the Independent that its work entailed “advocacy” to advance what it calls ‘reproductive rights’, further investigation might have been warranted. The terms of conditions of the grant it received are one thing, but what did the IFPA’s funding application say?

Similarly with Amnesty International Ireland, which cited similar ECHR defences as ARC. It supplied SIPO with the grant agreement letter from OSF and a summary of project activities under the grant, including polling and research into law reform, but does not appear to have furnished SIPO with the requested application grant. Given how the application letter had been the ‘smoking gun’ that caused SIPO to believe ARC was in breach of the law, one wonders why SIPO did not reiterate its request to see the application letter from Amnesty International Ireland to the American billionaire.