As most readers are aware, I support the availability of abortion through the health service in Ireland, disdaining the present, inhumane system of forcing Irish citizens to travel overseas to purchase the procedure from private clinics in the United Kingdom or elsewhere. I simply don’t see any logic or validity in the scientific or socio-economic arguments put forward by the pro-life lobby against the legalisation of abortion. In almost all cases, these arguments come down to doctrinal or nebulous notions of faith and religion, primarily Christian in nature. While I’m content to live on an island-nation whose culture and society can accommodate – and be enriched – by various spiritual beliefs and philosophies, I’m not prepared to be governed by them. The essence of republicanism, after all, is the primacy of the secular above the theological.
So I very much fall into the pro-choice camp and naturally welcome yesterday’s majority vote by the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, calling for the repeal of the troublesome 1983 clause in Bunreacht na hÉireann. In my own view, I favour the introduction of legislation permitting abortion up to twenty-two weeks, though the twelve-week compromise favoured by many on the Oireachtas group is a good start. The abstention by Sinn Féin members when it came to voting on the latter proposal reflects their party’s limited and frankly hypocritical policy on the matter. Hopefully that will be resolved at the special conference early next year, when a new leader is chosen. However, for the moment it puts some elected representatives of SF behind Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TDanna when it comes to progressive credentials. Which is a remarkable thing.
Putting all this needless controversy to one side, I wish to highlight this judgement from the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) which sanctioned Amnesty International Ireland for failing to comply with the rules on political donations. This relates to funds received by Amnesty and others in relation to their pro-choice activities, monies sourced back to the billionaire philanthropist, George Soros. From a recent report by the Irish Times:
Amnesty International has said it will not obey an instruction by the State’s ethics watchdog to return a donation from billionaire George Soros to fund its campaign to overturn Ireland’s abortion ban.
The Standards in Public Office commission (SIPO) has instructed Amnesty International to return a €137,000 donation from the Soros-funded Open Society Foundation.
Refusing to obey, Amnesty’s chief executive, Colm O’Gorman, told The Irish Times: “We’re being asked to comply with a law that violates human rights, and we can’t do that.”
It got the money for its My Body My Rights campaign, which advocates the repeal of the Eighth Amendment and the introduction of laws providing for abortion in Ireland.
However, SIPO said the donation breached Ireland’s campaign finance laws, which prohibit foreign donors making donations to groups involved in elections, or referendums here.
SIPO has judged that Amnesty must register as a “third party” if it engages in explicitly political activities, underwritten by external donations, as required under Irish law. The human rights grouping has protested vociferously against this ruling. This is a questionable position to take, to say the least. Politics in this country, at whatever level, must be entirely transparent and this applies to liberal causes as well as to illiberal ones. Amnesty International might not see the issue of abortion as a political one, and in most normal circumstances it would not be. However there are a legion of nations around the world, from the United States to the Russian Federation, where the pro-choice and pro-life positions have become entirely enmeshed in politics, however unfortunate that may be. And Ireland is one such place.
SIPO has issued this statement, which clarifies its position.
The Standards in Public Office Commission has noted a number of recent stories published regarding the Commission’s administration of the Electoral Act. In particular, questions have been raised regarding whether the Commission’s approach to the administration of the Act’s provisions regarding political donations has changed in recent months. It has not.
The Electoral Act 1997 (as amended) governs political donations, setting out obligations for registration of third parties, acceptance and disclosure thresholds and prohibiting certain types of donations. Any individual or organisation that accepts a donation over €100.00 given for political purposes is required to register as a Third Party, and is then subject to the Act’s donation limits and disclosure thresholds. It is important to note that it is the intent of the giver, and not the use of the funds, that determines whether a donation is considered a political donation for the purposes of the Act. The onus is on the third party to adhere to the obligations of the Act.
The Act also sets out prohibitions on political donations given by foreign individuals or organisations. Specifically, the Act prohibits donations from an individual other than an Irish citizen who resides outside the island of Ireland, or a donation from a body corporate or unincorporated body of persons which does not keep an office in the island of Ireland from which one or more of its principal activities is directed. The purpose of these prohibitions is to protect against interference by foreign individuals or entities in Ireland’s domestic political processes, including elections and referendums. Prohibited donations must be refused or returned.
Where the Commission has information that an organisation may have received a prohibited donation, the Commission may make inquiries. If the Commission is satisfied that no evidence exists that a prohibited donation was received, the Commission will not pursue the matter further. However, if the Commission subsequently receives new or contradictory information, the Commission may review its previous decision with a view to ensuring the Act’s objectives are met.
In 2016, the Commission received information that several Irish organisations had received donations from a foreign donor. At the time, the Commission made inquiries and received assurances from the recipients that the donations were not for political purposes. However, the Commission recently received new information that indicated the donations were indeed for political purposes. The Commission sought and received written confirmation from the donor that the funding was for explicitly political purposes. As it is the intent of the donor that determines whether a donation is a political donation, the funding very clearly fell within the Act’s prohibitions. The Commission has issued directives to the recipients to return the prohibited donations. In so doing, the Commission has administered the Act as enacted by the Oireachtas. The Commission rejects any assertion that its actions are out of keeping with the provisions or intent of the Act, or that it has acted inconsistently. The Commission has not changed its approach to implementing the provisions of the Act.
The Standards in Public Office Commission is an independent, non-partisan body with oversight responsibility for the Electoral Act 1997 (as amended), the Ethics in Public Office Acts 1995 and 2001, and the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015. Established in 2001 by the Standards in Public Office Act, the Commission has 6 members and is supported by a Secretariat.
Amnesty International may be supporting a just cause, and George Soros is most certainly not the liberal bogeyman the right (and alt-right) portray him as, but I have no more desire to see his opaque interference in Irish political affairs than I have to see the Koch brothers covertly funnelling cash into the pockets of the anti-choice campaign.