Anti-abortion groups ignored political watchdog queries

 

Anti-abortion groups the Life Institute and its sister organisation, Youth Defence, ignored six requests from the political watchdog regarding their potential status as a lobby group, it has emerged.

The Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) sent letters and emails to both organisations seeking clarity on whether they should be registered as third parties for political purposes.

Frustration

The commission has expressed frustration at current legislation, which provides no sanction to compel organisations to co-operate with it.

An organisation becomes a third party under the Electoral Act if it lobbies for political purposes.

In that case it must declare every donation over €100 and set up a political donations account.

Third parties can only accept donations of up to €2,500, and cannot accept donations from overseas unless the donor is an Irish citizen or from a corporation that has offices in Ireland.

The first email from Sipo was sent to the Life Institute on December 3rd; it was followed up by a letter on December 7th. Neither communication received a response.

Both organisations, which are based in the same building on Capel Street, responded in a two-line statement on Tuesday to Sipo, denying they were political lobby groups.

Life Institute director Niamh Uí Bhriain said it was “an education and awareness body seeking to protect the right to life of every person”.

“Making the public aware of potential human rights abuses is not political lobbying,” she said.

High-profile campaigns

Both organisations have been involved in high-profile campaigns to target Fine Gael TDs with a view to ensuring that the Government does not legislate for the X case.

Ms Uí Bhriain said the National Women’s Council of Ireland also encouraged its supporters to write to TDs and Senators advocating that the Government legislate for the X case, yet Sipo had decided that they were not a political lobby group.

Sipo officer Jacqueline Moore said the responses from the Life Institute and Youth Defence were unsatisfactory, and that the commission had sought further clarity on the issue.

“We have pointed out to both organisations that it is the view of the commission that their activities come within the definition of political purposes and they are seeking donations for those purposes,” she said.

Sipo has written to 10 organisations involved in the abortion debate. The Irish Family Planning Association, Human Life International and the National Women’s Council of Ireland say they have no need to register.

Five of the organisations, including the Life Institute and Youth Defence, have received follow-up section 4 (4) letters, having given an unsatisfactory or no response to previous correspondence.

A section 4 (4) letter reminds organisations that Sipo is entitled to make inquiries and ask any organisation to furnish any information necessary.

No sanction

However, Ms Moore said the watchdog was being frustrated by the lack of sanction for any organisation which chose not to co-operate with its directives.

“For this reason, it is futile to invest resources in sending reminder after reminder,” she said.