Amnesty refuses to obey SIPO law and deflects by demonising whistleblowing
In the past week, Amnesty International Ireland has refused to comply with a directive from the SIPO Commission to return an unlawful foreign political donation of €137,000. Its Chief Executive has said that Amnesty would also defend Iona taking similar political donations to fund pro-life campaigns, and that it is totally unacceptable to report Iona to SIPO.
Atheist Ireland asks Amnesty to return this money immediately. Amnesty can then retrospectively challenge the SIPO decision in whatever way it chooses. But returning the money now would prevent the issue from interfering politically in the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment.
This article reviews some of the things that Amnesty have said yesterday, and today’s press release from the SIPO Commission that explicitly contradicts what Amnesty has been saying.
The article explains why it is democratic and just to report wrongdoing, even from those who share our political aims. The article also gives examples of Atheist Ireland reporting wrongdoing to relevant authorities, including International Human Rights Committees, the Police and the Courts, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Information Commissioner, the Civil Registration Service, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Higher Education Authority, the Workplace Relations Commission, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, and the Standards in Public Office Commission.
The article gives particular details about our support for the SIPO laws, and why we asked the SIPO Commission to investigate whether several groups were complying with the law, including:
- the Catholic Church which has almost unlimited funding and political influence and control of most of our state-funded schools;
- the Iona Institute which initially didn’t register with SIPO but did so shortly after our report;
- the Humanist Association of Ireland which was unable to lawfully campaign politically as it had signed up to a law that discriminates against atheists in order to solemnise marriages for personal financial profit, and whose board members had invited us to report them to SIPO, along with the Education Equality group that the HAI set up and unlawfully funded because it could not lawfully campaign itself;
- and the politically well-connected Equate group, which was 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.
What Amnesty has said about the SIPO directive
Amnesty has said that the SIPO law is way more draconian than anti-NGO laws in Putin’s Russia and in Hungary. To support this, they cited the European Commission proceedings against the NGO law in Hungary. This is what the Venice Commission says about these laws. It does not support this assertion.
Amnesty also said that the SIPO Commission told Amnesty last year that the donation was okay, and that this year the Commission has changed its position and now says that the donation is unlawful. Amnesty says it has no idea why the Commission changed its position on this.
But the SIPO Commission has today issued a press release (extract below) saying that Amnesty assured them the donations were not for political purposes. The Commission then recently received new information that indicated the donations were indeed for explicitly political purposes. The Commission explicitly rejects that it has acted inconsistently or changed its approach to implementing the law.
This is a damning development that makes Amnesty’s position even harder to justify.
Meanwhile, in what seems like an attempt to deflect from this issue, Amnesty and others have been demonising Atheist Ireland for reporting different wrongdoing to the authorities (For clarity, Atheist Ireland did not report Amnesty and we were not even aware of this issue). We reject this promotion of the ethics of the schoolyard or the mob. We hope that the new statement by SIPOC will ensure that people of goodwill do not fall into this trap.
Amnesty supports large foreign donations to itself and, theoretically, to Iona
Amnesty supports a system whereby organisations can attract large donations, including from abroad, to fund political activities. This would simply assure that large organisations like the Catholic Church would continue to maintain the disproportionate impact on politics that such income brings, at the expense of overwhelming the voices of smaller civil society organisations who rely on small donations and voluntary activity.
Colm O Gorman said on RTE’s Sean O’Rourke Show that he would defend Iona taking large foreign donations similar to the one that Amnesty is refusing to return. He also said that it is totally unacceptable to report Iona to SIPO.
These are the relevant quotes from the interview. There are other comments between these quotes, as the conversation went back and forth between topics, but this is an accurate representation of the relevant exchange:
David Quinn: Why don’t I decide that I’m going to go to America, I’m going to raise half a million there from some conservative billionaire, come back with it, announce I’ve got the money, announce that I’m not going to comply with SIPO, announce that in my view the Electoral Act is unjust and violates human rights law…
Sean O’Rourke (to Colm O Gorman): Do you have a difficulty if he can find himself a conservative billionaire who gives him half a million dollars?
Colm O Gorman: No I don’t. I believe that as long as people transparently report the source of their income…
David Quinn: Iona has had complaints put in to SIPO about us on various occasions…
Colm O Gorman: Which is totally unacceptable in my view. We defend your rights here as well, David…
Later on Twitter, the following exchange took place:
Anna Creegan: The anti abortion groups are well able to take foreign money. (This tweet linked to an article in the Irish independent saying that the anti-abortion organisation Family & Life raised more than €1m in donations in one year.)
Colm O Gorman: Again, we defend their right to do so. As long as funding is fully transparent, there is transparency & accountability in how it used, & it is used for a legitimate purpose. So, we are challenging this act so that no organisation is subject to its draconian rules.
It is democratic and just to report wrongdoing
Atheist Ireland supports democracy. Part of the democratic process is that we have bodies in place to independently and lawfully oversee claims of wrongdoing. These can include internal committees within institutions, statutory bodies to oversee compliance with laws, the police and courts to investigate and prosecute crimes, and international regulatory bodies.
These bodies provide an independent way of assessing concerns about wrongdoing, rather than relying on our own possibly prejudiced beliefs. They are part of the historic evolution of society from mob rule to democracy. They don’t always get it right, they should have appeal mechanisms, and civil disobedience can sometimes be ethical. But they are vital to democracy.
In order for these bodies to work effectively and justly, citizens must be able to approach them without fear of retribution, discrimination, or demonisation. Indeed, we have laws to protect institutional whistle blowers from being identified or made to suffer for reporting wrongdoing. Harassing whistleblowers is an attack on democracy and on justice.
In recent days, Amnesty Ireland and others have attacked the concept of reporting wrongdoing, including crimes, to the relevant authorities in a democracy. This is turning democracy and justice on their heads. It is a mix of the childish ethics of the schoolyard, of not telling the teacher, and the tribal ethics of the mob, with its code of silence and bullying.
It is also important that whistleblowers should feel safe to report wrongdoing anonymously to those outside the investigating body. Because of this, we have considered whether us responding to these online attacks would encourage future such attacks and deter other whistleblowers. On balance, and in the interests of transparency, we have decided to publish this article to explain why reporting wrongdoing is an essential element in a democratic society, and an ongoing part of our work in Atheist Ireland.
Examples of Atheist Ireland reporting wrongdoing
Atheist Ireland spends most of our time working proactively to promote our policies. Alongside that, we fully support reporting concerns about wrongdoing to the relevant authorities. It is an essential part of our work. Here are some examples of bodies to which Atheist Ireland has reported, or is in the process of reporting, concerns about wrongdoing:
- International Human Rights Committees
- The Police and the Courts
- The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission
- The Information Commissioner
- The Civil Registration Service
- The Comptroller and Auditor General
- The Higher Education Authority
- The Workplace Relations Commission
- The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission
- The Standards in Public Office Commission
International Human Rights Committees
Atheist Ireland consistently reports breaches of human rights by the Irish State to various international human rights monitoring bodies, including by making written submissions and attending and addressing sessions of the bodies. These include the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Human Rights Council, ESC Rights Committee, Committee on the Rights of the Child, as well as the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and the European Union.
The Police and the Courts
Earlier this year Atheist Ireland received a complaint by email that an officer of Atheist Alliance International had been involved in several crimes, including sexual assault, in two countries. Atheist Ireland formally reported the claim to the police in Ireland, and to the police in Canada where the person resides. We argued that AAI should not deal with this complaint internally, and that the person concerned should resign. He did resign.
Atheist Ireland has taken advice from the police on addressing several issues, including from the Garda Racial, Intercultural & Diversity Office in the Garda Community Relations Bureau. These issues range from checking the appropriate way of dealing with complaints to making sure that we are compliant on issues such as child protection guidelines at our public information tables.
Atheist Ireland is also preparing an appeal to the Courts of a decision against us by the Workplace Relationship Commission.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission
Atheist Ireland has for many years supported and highlighted concerns regarding human rights with IHREC. We have sent parents to them who have contacted us about the abuse of their human rights in the education system. On a regular basis over the years we have voiced our concerns and complained about law and policy, various schools and the ETBs.
The Information Commissioner
We regularly report to the Information Commissioner various bodies who have failed to supply us with information that we have requested under the Freedom of Information Act. We have been in regular contact with the Information Commissioner in recent weeks, dealing with our FOI requests about the undue influence of the Catholic Church on state-run ETB schools that do not have a Catholic patron body. We would like to thank everybody who contributed to our crowdfunding to make it possible for us to engage in these FOI requests. As we were doing this for political purposes, we had to turn down a large contribution to the project. Nevertheless, we continue to support the SIPO laws as good for democracy.
The Civil Registration Service
We have for years been challenging with the Civil Registration Service the new religious discrimination in the amended Civil Registration Act, which maintains religious privilege and overtly discriminates against atheists. As part of this, we have reported to them the unlawful behaviour of the Humanist Association of Ireland.
The HAI cannot be seen to be promoting a political purpose because the Civil Registration Amendment Act 2012 forbids them from having a political cause. The Civil Registration Amendment Act gave the HAI the power to legally solemnise marriages in Ireland. This enables a select few within the HAI to make personal profits by running private businesses charging €400-€500 per marriage, for themselves as private entrepreneurs, giving €50 to the HAI, while delivering an effective state monopoly on an important public service. It is unlawful to solemnise marriages for profit.
Also, because they make so much money out of this monopoly the HAI never challenges the religious discrimination in the Civil Registration Amendment Act. Religions that solemnise marriages can promote a political cause, not Humanists. It is only Humanist/secular bodies that are legally required to be ethical under the Act, religious bodies that solemnise marriages are not required to be ethical. If some HAI members were not personally profiting from this Act, the HAI might be more likely to oppose this overt religious discrimination.
The second link below includes a list of 35 correspondences in one year alone between Atheist Ireland, the CRS, and the Information Commissioner on this issue. We have also reported these concerns to the relevant Government Department, and have met with the Department to seek advice on how to officially progress our complaints further.
- 2013: The Civil Registration Act discriminates on religious grounds and undermines human rights
- 2014: Rules for secular marriage? The Irish Civil Registration Service is making it up as they go along
The Comptroller and Auditor General
In May of 2015, Atheist Ireland contacted the Comptroller and Auditor General, as the body that audits the accounts of Dundalk IT. We then engaged in a series of discussions with them, to highlight problems with these accounts. Specifically, the issues related to the awarding of public funds in secret to the Archdiocese of Armagh for chaplaincy services, in a manner that was unconstitutional and failed to secure value for money through proper open tendering. In November of 2015, the Comptroller and Auditor General wrote back to us to indicate that the issues we raised had national significance and should be brought to the Higher Education Authority.
The Higher Education Authority
As Atheist Ireland had already raised the same issues with the Minister for Education and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education, we then arranged a meeting with the Higher Education Authority as the body with direct oversight with respect to third level colleges. In February 2016, Atheist Ireland made a detailed presentation at the offices of the HEA, outlining the problems associated with the procurement of chaplaincy services by third level colleges. By June of 2016, the HEA had produced a report with a set of recommendations, which included all of the changes requested by Atheist Ireland. These recommendations have now been implemented, including the requirement for some chaplains to reapply for their jobs, which resulted in considerable savings to the exchequer. These recommendations also required colleges to change their behaviour in order to respect their constitutional obligations not to discriminate on religious grounds.
The Workplace Relations Commission
Where Atheist Ireland has discovered breaches of the Equal Status Act, these have been reported to the Workplace Relations Commission. The processing of several such complaints is ongoing and Atheist Ireland will continue to report breaches of the Equal Status Act when they become apparent.
The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission
In April of 2017, Atheist Ireland made a formal complaint about the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. The Irish Catholic Bishops have a monopoly in the publishing of religion text books and we suspected that they were abusing this monopoly by limiting the market to a then extant competitor. This related to a letter from Bishop Leahy to schools, instructing them that they should only purchase text books approved by the bishops, and not the religion text books offered by competitive publishers. The processing of this complaint is ongoing, with the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission having written to Bishop Leahy in September of 2017.
The Standards in Public Office Commission
We will deal with this issue in most detail, as it is the area in which Amnesty and others have been attacking us this week. We have reported various bodies to the Standards in Public Office Commission, and asked the Commission to examine whether these groups were in compliance with the law. Our complaints about all of these bodies, and their noncompliance with SIPO, have been in the public domain since April 2016 when we published the information on our website.
The Standards in Public Office laws are good, progressive laws that try to prevent wealthy donors from unduly influencing political decisions. They are the best route, if appropriately amended, to make the Catholic Church accountable for its political funding. In 2015 Atheist Ireland registered with the Standards in Public Office Commission as a Third Party.
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 large political donations because we are registered with SIPO, and because we want to be legally accountable about our funding.
In 2015 we reported to the Commission that the Catholic Church, the HAI and Iona had all failed to register their political activity with SIPO. Weeks later, Iona registered as a Third Party, and is now the only religious body that is SIPO compliant. Colm O Gorman said this week that reporting Iona to the SIPO Commission was completely unacceptable. He has also said on Twitter that our conduct with regard to SIPO is “entirely unethical” and “disgraceful” and “gravely disturbing”.
Our published complaints in April 2016
In April 2016 we publicly reported on our concerns about the tangled web of financial rules for political campaign groups, including the Catholic Church, the HAI, Education Equality, and Equate.
In April 2016 we published that the Catholic Church claimed 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. We published that they seemed 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.
In April 2016 we published that the HAI was not registered with SIPO, as they are legally forbidden from promoting a political cause under the Civil Registration Amendment Act. We published that the HAI seemed to be trying to get around this, in the education area, by setting up and funding a new organisation that can legally promote a political cause, and that is on the Register of lobbyists. The HAI unlawfully funded Education Equality to start up. However, Education Equality was 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.
In April 2016 we published that another new group, Equate, had got substantial funding from the ‘One Foundation’ who were not registered on the Register of Corporate Donors, and indeed who had ceased to exist. We published that the HAI was not registered on the Register of Corporate Donors either, and they had donated €10,000 to Education Equality. We published that this is above the limit that a third party can accept, and above the limit that a corporate donor can give, and neither group had registered in these capacities despite carrying out relevant activities.
At that time, we publicly invited 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. As part of that process, we asked the SIPO Commission to investigate whether the Catholic Church, the HAI, Education Equality, and Equate were complying with the law. Much earlier than even April 2016, we had personally told members of the HAI and Education Equality about our concerns, and our intention to report our complaints. Board members of the HAI invited us to make such a complaint.
No doubt many members of Education Equality were unaware of the background to why the HAI funded its establishment. The HAI has placed those people in a very unfortunate position. The HAI effectively set up and unlawfully funded a new group called Education Equality, while also breaching other laws that undermined the campaign for a secular state. HAI board members then invited Atheist Ireland to report them to SIPO, knowing the impact that this would have on the people who had joined the new group in good faith.
Hre is an extract from the HAI newsletter of August 2015, which shows how the new group Education Equality evolved from meetings hosted by the HAI Education Campaign Team.
The situation today
We will continue to publish details of wrongdoing by bodies who seem to be on the same side of the political divides as we are, but who in reality are both acting unlawfully and undermining the campaign for ethical secularism and human rights.
The Humanist Association of Ireland has recently told its members that it is in breach of several laws. It gave its members four options to discuss:
- withdraw as legal solemnisers under the Civil Registration Act,
- reconstitute the HAI as a nonpolitical body,
- form a separate body to campaign politically,
- or continue to argue that they do not have a political cause despite having signed up as a corporate political donor while still campaigning politically.
Most members present seemed to prefer the final option, endorsing a continuation of nod-and-wink behaviour that will further endanger their activities and their funding of Education Equality. If the HAI chooses to argue that it does not have a political cause, then it will have to reconcile that with the fact that it has now registered as a corporate donor in order to be able to give money to Education Equality for political activity within the definition of the SIPO law.
Equate has now closed down, saying that they had only been set up to operate for two years. Equate appeared out of nowhere, with a former Minister for Education on its advisory board, and with large funding from an organisation that didn’t exist. Atheist Ireland met them and gave them advice and offered them access to all of our resources on religious discrimination in the education system. They then displayed a level of access to the Minister for Education that was unprecedented for any campaign group, never mind a new one. The State delegation also publicly welcomed Equate at the United Nations, which we have seen happen with any other group. The Minister announced flawed policies at a conference hosted by Equate, and Equate welcomed these flawed policies that breached human rights. Equate was given access to the media on the basis of the Minister making announcements at their conference. Meanwhile the Minister has refused to meet with the secular coalition of Atheist Ireland, the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslim community of Ireland that has been working on these issues for years.
This was one of the most extraordinary developments in education campaigning that we have since Atheist Ireland was founded. Can you imagine the reaction if a Catholic group suddenly appeared out of nowhere, with a former Minister for Education on its advisory board, and large funding from an organisation that didn’t exist, then the Minister for Education started announcing flawed policies at their events while refusing to meet with other groups? Secular civil society groups would be outraged, and rightly so. It does not become okay just because a group on ‘our’ side does it.
Challenging the influence of the Catholic Church
Meanwhile the Catholic Church has control over our education system. There are exemptions in our Equality laws that enables them to discriminate on religious grounds and undermine the human rights of minorities. Atheist Ireland has to deal practically with an organisation that is not registered with SIPO, has enormous funding and also gets state funding. The Catholic Church receives donations to promote religion.
They can use this funding to promote religion politically by using their influence to ensure that law and policy reflects the teachings of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is a powerful lobby group with a lot of money, they are not registered with SIPO, despite being on the Register of Lobbyists. There is no doubt that the Catholic Church has a political purpose, it is also worth mentioning that they are also a foreign state.
Atheist Ireland has to campaign alongside groups within the Catholic Church such as the CPSMA and the CSP as well as the Catholic Bishops conference. The CPSMA is funded by the state and also gets fees from schools that are under their their patronage. This means that we are campaigning politically against religious bodies that are state funded and not registered with SIPO. That is not an even playing field.
Atheist Ireland is continuing with our work in a range of areas, nationally and internationally, to promote atheism, reason, ethical secularism and human rights. We will continue to act with integrity, and to comply with the laws that are aimed at preventing large donations from influencing our democracy. We will also continue to campaign to make the Catholic Church accountable under these laws. We will do this despite the fact that it seems that the Catholic Church, and other well-funded groups with political connections, gain more access to influence the Government than do smaller voluntary groups that are SIPO compliant.