Catholic Church has privileged position on political funding with SIPO

The Irish State has put in place laws that enable religious organisations (mainly the Catholic Church) to campaign on political issues such as the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and religious control of schools. But ethical secular organisations, including Atheist Ireland, get no such benefit because we treat the law with respect.

The Catholic Church, the most powerful religion in Ireland, also call itself a State when it suits its interests, and continues to have a huge influence on all areas of legislation and public policy. The Catholic Church campaigns on political grounds to ensure that the Irish State does not amend its Constitution to bring it in line with our international human rights obligations.

The Irish Catholic newspaper recently reported that the Abortion Rights Campaign has returned a grant of $24,999 to the US-based Open Societies Foundation, after being directed to do so by the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO). This highlights an area where double standards apply and where secular groups with integrity get treated differently by the State than religious organisations.

Atheist Ireland has also declined offers of large political donations, because we want to act ethically and stay within the law. One of Atheist Ireland’s policies is to promote integrity in public life, and an end to the nod-and-wink approach to Irish politics, where we are expected to ignore religious discrimination by pretending it doesn’t exist, and where the law can be ignored or fudged to mean whatever people want it to mean.

The regulation of donations by the Standards in Public Office Commission is one of those areas. It seems that the Catholic Church has again come out in a privileged position, while secular organisations that are honest about our activities, and that campaign with integrity, get no such privileges. We accept that the staff of SIPO are reflecting the laws and policy put in place by the State, is that this privilege is not something that SIPO just makes up.

Campaigning on Political Grounds

On Sunday March 5th, Atheist Ireland spoke before the Citizens Assembly on Repealing the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution. We appeared alongside two other organisations campaigning politically on the Abortion issue, the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland.

All three organisations campaign on various political issues all of the time. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution is a political issue, and so is campaigning on the Education system. The Referendum on Marriage Equality is another example of how religious organisations campaign politically in Ireland.

All three organisations accept donations to fund our respective activities, but Atheist Ireland is the only one that is registered with SIPO. It seems that the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland can accept donations without limitations, and use them for any purposes, including campaigning in political areas such as on the issue of abortion.

Religious organisations, like all other organisations, are entitled to campaign politically in the public square, and to try to influence the outcome of referendums and various campaigns. However, it is only fair that there is a level playing field and that no particular organisations are privileged.

Donating to the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland receive donations all of the time, and they seek these donations. So why do they not have to register with SIPO? As far as we are aware, the Catholic Church’s argument seems to be that none of the donations that the Catholic Church receives are specifically given for promoting political purposes.

However, the Catholic Church has arguably influenced public policy in Ireland more than any other Third Party, and it continues today to engage in activities that clearly fall within the “political purposes” category.

If you donate to the Catholic Church, you are donating to promote their religious teachings within the public square, and that includes political campaigns such as the Eighth Amendment and the laws and policy with regard to the education system. The question to ask is where does religion end and political campaigning start?

Clearly, this legislation on donations benefits religious bodies more than ethical secular bodies as it does not require organisations to declare how they are funding all of their political activities, just what is being donated for political purposes and how that is spent.

Religious organisations might also argue that they use their own money to fund their political purposes, and use donations to fund their religious purposes. So this legislation, and its regulation, leaves a powerful religious body with the ability to continue to influence political campaigns and policy while it restricts the ability of ethical secular bodies from getting donations to do the same.

What is SIPO and what is a Third Party?

The Standards in Public Office Commission has a supervisory role under the Ethics Acts and the Electoral Acts. These provide for disclosure of interests, including any material factors which could influence Government Ministers, members of parliament, or public servants in performing their official duties.

People or organisations who seek political change come under three categories: a registered political party, an election candidate or a Third Party.

A Third Party means any individual or group who or which accepts, in a particular calendar year, a donation for political purposes exceeding the value of €100. The donation can be in money, property or goods, free use of property or goods, free supply of services, or a donation in kind.

Also, a Third Party cannot accept for political purposes a donation exceeding €100 where the name and address of the donor are not known; a cash donation exceeding €200; a donation from a corporate donor exceeding €200 in any calendar year unless the corporate donor is registered with SIPO; a donation from anyone (other than an Irish citizen) who lives outside the island of Ireland; or an aggregate donation or donations from a single donor exceeding €2,500 in any calendar year.

Political purposes for a Third Party include any of the following purposes:

1. To promote or oppose, directly or indirectly, any interests of a political party of politician;

2. To present, directly or indirectly, any policies or a particular policy of a third party;

3. To present, directly or indirectly, any comments of a third party (with regard to any policies of any political party, political group, politician, third party or candidate) at an election or referendum or otherwise;

4. 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;

5. To promote or oppose, directly or indirectly, the election of a candidate, or to present any policies or views of a candidate, at an election or otherwise;

6. Otherwise to seek to influence the outcome of the election or a referendum or a campaign.

Conclusion

Quite clearly Atheist Ireland, the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland all fall under several of these categories. Yet of these three bodies, only Atheist Ireland has registered with the Standards Commission as a Third Party and where its donations are regulated.

This limits our ability to campaign politically while the Catholic Church has no such limitation. A powerful religious organisation, that also calls itself a State, has a privileged position in Ireland with regard to the donations it accepts from within Ireland and abroad.

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