A group which campaigned for reduced religious influence in Church-owned schools was forced to close down following a series of complaints to the State’s ethics watchdog over controversial funding, The Irish Catholic understands.
‘Equate: Equality in Education’ was established in October 2015, aiming to change the law so that oversubscribed Church-owned schools would not be able to prioritise their own members. The organisation also campaigned for Faith formation classes to the moved to the end of the school day, for it to be easier for children to opt out of religious instruction, and for the divestment process of faith-based to be accelerated.
Ahead of its formal launch, group director Michael Barron said Equate wanted to help bring these changes about during the lifetime of the next – now the current – Government. The organisation, however, folded on November 30 last, claiming that it had been set up in October 2015 “as a time-limited catalyst organisation”.
The Irish Catholic understands, however, that the organisation’s closure was in fact prompted by an ultimatum from the Standards in Public Office (SIPO) commission, issued at a meeting on October 23 last, forcing it to choose between closure and returning funds it had received from the One Foundation, a philanthropic organisation headed by Declan Ryan, the son of Ryanair founder Tony Ryan.
Mr Ryan was, with former Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn, a member of Equate’s advisory board. The One Foundation, which he established in 2004, is believed to have issued over €40 million in grants to various Irish groups before it was wound up in 2013; it had ceased activity before the establishment of Equate.
The October ultimatum followed several complaints being submitted to the State’s ethics watchdog, one such complaint having come from Atheist Ireland, which has described Equate as “politically well-connected” and “funded way above the SIPO limits by a body that didn’t exist, while enjoying unprecedented access to the Minister for Education and repeatedly welcoming flawed ministerial statements that should have been opposed”.
Although the amount donated from the One Foundation has not yet been publicly disclosed, sources believe it was in the region of €500,000, with funds having been needed to pay for three full-time and one part-time member of staff. The organisation also ran a conference on education access in Croke Park last February – an event which was opened by Minister for Education Richard Bruton. Equate also funded extensive public relations and research work, with SIPO’s own records showing Equate as having engaged in intensive lobbying of members of the Oireachtas and the Department of Education.
Irish electoral law requires those who receive donations of more than €100 for the purposes of political campaigning to register as ‘third parties’, with third parties being prohibited from receiving more than €2,500 from any one donor in any calendar year.