The tangled web of financial rules for political campaign groups

Atheist Ireland complies with the various pieces of legislation that regulate the funding and payment for political campaigning in Ireland. Unlike some other groups with secular or religious political aims, we are all volunteers, but we have managed to ensure that our funding and donations are accountable.

Unfortunately, we are being discriminated against because some other groups seem not to be complying fully with all the various pieces of legislation, and therefore have access to funding that is not available to us. We have refused certain donations because we are registered with SIPO, and because we want to be legally accountable about our funding.

The Catholic Church don’t fully comply, and neither do some other NGOs that campaign politically in the education system. The legislation will fail if it is not enforced. It is in the public interest to see who is lobbying politically and where they are getting their funding from.

We invite all relevant groups to comply fully with the legislation in the public interest, and not to take nod and wink approaches to avoid either the letter or the spirit of the law.

Some of the Acts involved

The Standards in Public Office (SIPO) Commission is an independent body established in December 2001 by the Standards in Public Office Act 2001. It has supervisory roles under four separate pieces of legislation. Its functions include supervising the disclosure of interests and compliance with tax clearance requirements, the disclosure of donations and election expenditure, the expenditure of state funding received by political parties and the registration of lobbying.

The Standards in Public Office (SIPO) regulations require organisations to register with them if they receive financial or benefit-in-kind donations for a political purpose, or if they are a corporate donor giving funds for a political purpose to such an organisation. Atheist Ireland is registered as a third party with SIPO under these regulations (first and second parties are political parties and candidates, and third parties are any other body that seeks to influence public policy.)

On 1 September 2015 the Regulation of lobbying Act came into effect. Anyone who pays somebody to carry on lobbying activities from 1 September 2015 will need to keep a record of these activities, and submit them to the Register every four months.

The purpose of this legislation is to make information available to the public on the identity of groups and individuals who are paid to communicate with public officials on various policies, legislative matters or prospective policies, bills and decisions.

Also, the Charities Act allows tax free status for the advancement of religion, but not for the advancement of atheism. This means that the Catholic Church and the Iona Institute have a financial advantage in their frequent forays into the public square.

The HAI also has this advantage, as it qualifies as a charity under the advancement of education. However, the HAI cannot legally promote a political cause, because it also solemnises civil marriages. Religious bodies can solemnise marriages and promote a political cause, but the HAI can do one but not the other. Atheist Ireland is campaigning to end this religious discrimination, but the HAI is not doing so, and in any case cannot legally do so.

Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015

Atheist Ireland communicates with public officials on various issues all the time. Promoting the separation of Church and State is a political cause, and a lot of our work concerns communicating with public officials on various pieces of legislation, policies and pushing for Constitutional Referendums to amend the Constitution.

Atheist Ireland is not on the Lobbying Register as we have no paid employees. We are all volunteers. One of the conditions of registering is that NGOs or organisations must have a paid employee. So, while we do lobby on political grounds, we are not required to register.

Some of the other NGO’s that campaign on education are registered, such as Education Equality and Equate, who like us have a political purpose and are campaigning to amend laws and policies. The Catholic Church is also registered, as it campaigns politically in areas such as education and abortion.

However, we have been unable to locate the Iona Institute on the Register.

The Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) is also not registered, presumably as they are legally forbidden from promoting a political cause under the Civil Registration Amendment Act (see here). This means that they cannot legally promote the separation of church and state, as that would mean campaigning for changes in legislation and policy. They cannot legally campaign to amend laws to ensure freedom from discrimination in the education system.

The HAI seems to be trying to get around this, in the education area,  by funding a new organisation that can legally promote a political cause, and that is on the Register of lobbyists. The HAI funded Education Equality to start up. However, Education Equality is not registered as a Third Party with SIPO, despite being on the register of lobbyists. SIPO regulations for Third Parties forbid donations of this size.

Third Parties and Donations

SIPO has a supervisory role in relation to donations to third parties that have a political purpose such as Atheist Ireland who campaigns to amend legislation in the education system. SIPO has Guidelines for Third Parties who they have defined as:

A third party means any individual or group, other than a registered political party or election candidate, who or which accepts, in a particular calendar year, a donation for political purposes exceeding the value of €100.

SIPO has defined in their Guidelines what political purpose means:-

“otherwise to seek to influence the outcome of the election or a referendum or a campaign.”

“to promote or oppose, directly or indirectly, 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;”

Atheist Ireland

Atheist Ireland is registered with SIPO as a Third Party that receives donations. A lot of the funding that we receive from our membership fee goes to promote a political purpose, the separation of church and state, and we also receive some donations. If you join Atheist Ireland as a paid up member you are joining an organisation that has a political purpose, which is the separation of church and state.

If you donate to Atheist Ireland you can donate for political purposes, the separation of Church and State, or you can donate to non-political projects such as our Education Fund, which is not a political purpose. Registering with SIPO means that we are limited in the amount of donations we receive, and that we have to disclose donations over a certain amount.

It does mean that we are discriminated against when compared to groups that do not register,  but we believe in complying with the legislation and in being accountable about our funding. The same cannot be said for other groups that receive donations but refuse to register.

Atheist Ireland has recently submitted its returns for SIPO (Standard in Public Office). Atheist Ireland has been registered with SIPO since early 2015. As you will note from the Register of Third parties, there are many other NGOs registered such as the Abortion Rights Campaign.

Other organisations

The Iona Institute are registered but the Catholic Church is not. Neither are other groups campaigning on the education system, such as Equate and Education Equality. The HAI are not registered, presumably as they cannot legally promote a political cause, or perhaps because they claim that they have not received donations for a political purpose.

If you donate to the HAI, you are not legally donating to promote the separation of church and state. You can only donate to promote the advancement of education, which is the basis upon which the HAI has its charitable status. As stated above the HAI believe that they are getting around this by donating to another NGO, Education Equality.

Another new group, Equate, has got substantial funding from the ‘One Foundation’ who for some reason are not registered on the Register of Corporate Donors. The HAI are not registered on the Register of Corporate Donors either, and they have donated €10,000 to Education Equality. This is above the limit that a third party can accept, and above the limit that a corporate donor can give, and neither group has registered in these capacities despite carrying out relevant activities.

The Catholic Church claims that any donations they receive are to promote the Catholic religion and are not for promoting a political purpose, notwithstanding the fact that they campaign to amend laws and policy to reflect their religion. They seem to be able to get away with this. This means that they don’t have any limit on donations they receive from a particular person or from overseas. They also get tax relief on promoting a political cause as they are a registered charity.

Catholic Church bodies are registered on the Lobbying Register. This means that they claim that they are paying people to campaign politically but not getting any donations to do so. So we have organisations claiming that they receive no donations to promote political purposes but who are registered on the lobbying register and promote political purposes.

As you can see, we have many different groups promoting a political purpose and promoting change in legislation but only a very few are willing to be openly accountable about exactly where they get their funding. They are also not willing to comply with the regulations on receiving donations. These regulations are there for the public interest.

To make matters worse the various pieces of legislation discriminate in favour of religious groups over secular groups, and in favour of some secular groups (such as the HAI), over other secular groups (such as Atheist Ireland).

Register of Corporate Donors

SIPO also has a supervisory role in relation to the Register of Donors. You can access the Register here.

Atheist Ireland is not on this Register as we do not donate funds to any person or group to promote our political aims. We promote our political aims ourselves, and we are all unpaid volunteers.

The HAI is not registered as a Corporate Donor even though they have given funding to Education Equality to promote a political cause. The One Foundation is not registered as a Corporate Donor even though they have given funding to Equate.

Charities Act

Atheist Ireland is not a registered Charity as we do not meet  the requirements to register as a Charity. In accordance with section 3 (1) of the Charities Act 2009 each of the following shall be a charitable purpose:

  • Trusts for the Relief of Poverty
  • Trusts for the Advancement of Education
  • Trusts for the Advancement of Religion
  • Trusts for Other Purposes Beneficial to the Community

As you can see, this section of the legislation does not recognise the advancement of atheism as a charitable purpose, only the advancement of religion, which is another form of discrimination. Tax relief on donations also only applies to the advancement of religion, and not to the advancement of atheism.

The Humanist Association of Ireland is a registered Charity. They are registered under the ‘Advancement of Education’ as registering under the advancement of humanism is not an option.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference and its associated bodies are registered charities. The Iona Institute is also a registered charity. The Charities Act presumes that the advancement of religion is of public benefit, stating:-

“(4) It shall be presumed, unless the contrary is proved, that a gift for the advancement of religion is of public benefit.”

The Iona Institute exists solely to advance and promote the Christian religion, and its social and moral values. That is how it describes its object in its memorandum of association lodged with the companies office. The Iona Institute has tax-exempt status in Ireland precisely because it exists to advance religion, which is one of the four categories of activity that enables charities to have tax-exempt status in Ireland.

Legally, all of its income and property must be applied solely towards the promotion of its main charitable object as set out in its Governing Instrument, which is to advance and promote the Christian religion, and its social and moral values.

Charities in Ireland are permitted to promote a political cause, if it relates directly to their charitable purpose, unless they are also registered to solemnise civil marriages, in which case they cannot promote a political purpose at all. That is why the HAI cannot legally promote the separation of church and state, (Civil Registration Amendment Act)

When you hear the Catholic Church or the Iona Institute in the media promoting a political cause based on religion, they have a privilege that the rest of us don’t enjoy. When you hear them claim that they are being pushed out of the ‘public square’ remember that they enjoy a privilege that organisations (in the public square) with an opposing view do not enjoy.

It is also worth remembering that the Catholic Church are not registered with SIPO as they claim that they don’t receive donations to promote a political cause. Every time the Catholic Church or the Iona Institute are interviewed in the media on any subject, they are advancing religion as that is the legal basis on which they have their charitable status.

Conclusion

Atheist Ireland complies with the various pieces of legislation that regulate the funding and payment for political campaigning in Ireland. We invite all relevant groups to comply fully with the legislation in the public interest, and not to take nod and wink approaches to avoid either the letter or the spirit of the law. We will continue to campaign to separate church and state and to remove religious privilege.

Atheist Ireland