Atheist Ireland can endorse the integrity and consistency of the SIPO Commission
Amnesty International Ireland says that the SIPO Commission told Amnesty in 2016 that a €137,000 donation complied with the law, then SIPOC changed its mind about this in 2017. Amnesty says that it has no idea why SIPOC changed its mind. SIPOC says that it didn’t change its mind, and that it accepted what Amnesty told them in 2016. Then SIPOC says it got new evidence in 2017, which contradicted what Amnesty told them in 2016.
Atheist Ireland has been registered with SIPOC since March 2015. From our direct experience with them since then, we can confirm the integrity and consistency of SIPOC in its dealings with us, whenever we have sought guidance on any potential donations, during the same timescale that Amnesty says that SIPOC was dealing arbitrarily with them.
Amnesty is asking us to accept that SIPOC has told them something contrary to what SIPOC has been telling us since 2015, and contrary to SIPOC’s Third Party Explanatory Notes of 2015. We simply do not accept that SIPOC has been targeting Atheist Ireland but not others since 2015, and that they have just now started to target Amnesty as well over the unlawful €137,000 donation.
During early 2015 Atheist Ireland contacted the SIPO Commission to see if we had to register under the SIPO laws. We went over all of our activities, honestly, and SIPOC explained that we would have to register. The reason that we had to register was because we had received donations for political purposes that exceeded the limit that triggered registration.
The major political activity that we were engaged in, and for which we sought donations, was our political campaigning for a secular education system, as well as our political campaigns to change other laws. The Commission was clear to us that the requirement to register applied all of the time, and was not confined to campaigning during elections and referendums. Indeed there was not and is not a referendum being considered in the area of education reform.
In March 2015 Atheist Ireland registered as a Third Party with SIPOC. Since we signed up to SIPOC, we have turned down large political donations, in order to comply with SIPO Regulations. We are a small voluntary organisation and very grateful for any donations. We put all of our lawful donations to good use, and we would never jeopardise our campaigns by misleading SIPOC in relation to any donations offered or received.
In September 2015 (according to SIPOC) The Commission issued a set of Explanatory Notes for Third Parties. This made clear that the legal definition of political purposes included:
- “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.”
- “6. Otherwise to seek to influence the outcome of the election or a referendum or a campaign.” Note here that “a campaign” is included separately to an election or a referendum.
In March 2016 SIPOC wrote to Atheist Ireland as a Third Party, reminding us that we were required to submit details of our political financial transactions from the previous year. This notice included the details of the Explanatory Notes for Third Parties. We found no ambiguity about our requirement to comply, and we did so.
In early 2016 (according to SIPOC) the Commission received information that Amnesty and others had received donations from a foreign donor, the Open Society Foundation. The Commission made inquiries and received assurances from the recipients that the donations were not for political purposes.
Between August and October 2016 (according to Amnesty) SIPOC wrote to Amnesty in August about the grant. Amnesty replied with details about the grant. SIPOC replied in October and declared itself satisfied with Amnesty’s statement and confirmed that this funding did not require Amnesty to register as a ‘third party’.
In March 2017 SIPOC wrote to Atheist Ireland as a Third Party, reminding us that we were required to submit details of our political financial transactions from the previous year. This notice included the details of the Explanatory Notes for Third Parties. We found no ambiguity about our requirement to comply, and we did so.
Also during 2017 Atheist Ireland was crowdfunding to use the Freedom of Information Act to seek information about the influence of the Catholic Church in ETB Schools, in order to change the laws governing this. We asked the Commission for guidance about these donations. SIPOC told us that donations for that purpose would be political donations. We put a notice to that effect on our crowdfunding page.
Also during 2017 (according to the lobbying register) Amnesty began lobbying Government Ministers and Ministerial Advisors with the intention of trying to change the SIPO laws. There are four such entries on the lobbying register from the period January to September 2017.
23 October 2017 (according to the Irish Times) The Chief Executive of Amnesty Ireland told the Irish Times that Amnesty “is solely concerned with the independent and impartial protection and promotion of human rights. This is not ‘political’, so we do not consider our human rights work to come within the remit of the 1997 Electoral Act”.
Sometime during 2017 (according to SIPOC) The Commission received new information that indicated the €137,000 donation to Amnesty was 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 Last Few Weeks
17 November 2017 (according to Amnesty) SIPOC wrote to Amnesty to say that that they have concluded that the OSF grant was in breach of domestic law and was considered as a “prohibited donation”. SIPOC further instructed Amnesty to return the €137,000.
8 December 2017 (according to Amnesty) Amnesty refuses to comply with the instruction to return the unlawful €137,000 donation. Amnesty says the arbitrary way in which SIPOC is implementing the Electoral Act is creating an even more confusing and fraught situation for civil society groups. Amnesty says it has no idea why SIPOC has changed its mind about the donation being unlawful.
12 December 2017 (according to Amnesty) The Chief Executive of Amnesty said on RTE that he would support the Iona Institute getting hundreds of thousands of dollars from a conservative American billionaire to fund the campaign to maintain the Eighth Amendment. He also said that it was completely unacceptable for anyone to report Iona to SIPOC, as Amnesty defended Iona’s rights as well.
13 December 2017 (according to SIPOC) 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 says it has not changed its approach to implementing the provisions of the Act.
17 December 2017 (according to the Sunday Business Post) The Open Society Foundation says that “no such confirmation has been provided by us to SIPOC regarding our grant to Amnesty.” SIPOC clarified that “there was documentary evidence received and subsequently verified by the donor. This information satisfied the Commission that the donations were given for political purposes.”