A culture of light touch regulation leaves vital issues like Ireland’s protection of the unborn at the mercy of well-funded lobby groups, a member of the Dáil’s committee on the Eighth Amendment has warned.
It comes as it was revealed that Amnesty International Ireland has pinpointed abortion as its top priority. New figures reveal that the organisation – headed by Colm O’Gorman – now spends more lobbying for abortion than on any other project.
Last November, the Standards in Public Office (SIPO) Commission allowed Amnesty to retain €137,000 it received from the US-based Open Societies Foundation to enable its abortion campaigning, despite directing the Abortion Rights Campaign to return €23,000 it had received from the same source.
Under legislation, it is illegal for Irish-based organisations to accept foreign funding for political campaigns in Ireland.
Independent TD Mattie McGrath told The Irish Catholic it appears that SIPO is relying on groups to decide for themselves whether the rules apply to them or not.
“The entire third-party registration process appears to be deliberately opaque. This in turn creates room for wide and divergent interpretations of what constitutes compliance,” he said, adding that this “in itself demonstrates the need for root and branch reform of the process”.
“Failure to do so leaves the political process at the mercy of well-financed organisations who have the capacity to manipulate continuing regulatory uncertainty to their advantage,” Mr McGrath said.
Under the Electoral Act 1997, a ‘third party’ is defined as someone who accepts for political purposes a donation exceeding €100 in value, with most donations from individuals – other than Irish citizens – who reside outside the island of Ireland being illegal. SIPO has said it believes the current provisions could hinder charities in the conduct of their ordinary affairs and doubts that this is the legislature’s intention.
Mr O’Gorman claimed that Amnesty, which deregistered from SIPO in January 2016, does not generally consider itself to come under SIPO’s jurisdiction as human rights work does not constitute work for “political purposes”.
“On the face of it appears that SIPO are essentially relying on a process whereby lobby groups/third parties can self-declare or self-designate their activities/purpose,” Mr McGrath said. “At best this is an example of ‘light touch’ ethical regulation; at worst it amounts to sham accountability.”
Amnesty deregistered with SIPO in 2016, but over the following year spent €275,463 on abortion campaigning, €160,687 being assigned to its campaign for a “human rights compliant abortion law”, and €114,776 being spent on the ‘My Body, My Rights’ campaign, which calls for abortion in Ireland and such countries as Nepal, Burkina Faso, Morocco and Tunisia. These figures vastly eclipse the sums assigned to addressing torture, the death penalty, and prisoners of conscience.
Over the course of that year, the organisation registered approximately 20 instances when it lobbied members of the Oireachtas on the issue of abortion. In almost every case, these instances were classed as lobbying to change legislation or party policy on health issues, not as human rights lobbying.
“Both the lack of clarity and the systemic challenges in implementing the legislation governing third party registration continues to be a source of concern to me,” Mr McGrath told The Irish Catholic.