Inquiry into Life Institute campaign

 

Watchdog:Anti-abortion organisation the Life Institute is being investigated by the State’s ethics watchdog over a potential breach of regulations regarding lobby groups.

The Life Institute, along with its affiliated organisation Youth Defence, is distributing anti-abortion leaflets to 1.4 million homes. It is also taking out advertisements in 25 newspapers targeting Fine Gael TDs.

The leaflets have the numbers of local Fine Gael TDs on them and supporters have been urged to call Fine Gael TDs and then notify the institute so an accurate log of calls can be made.

However, the institute is not registered as a third party with the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo), which regulates organisations that are raising funds for political lobbying.

Last week on its website, the Life Institute sought out donations to fund a political campaign against abortion, as did Youth Defence.

Electoral Act

Under the terms of the Electoral Act 1997, a third party that receives a donation in excess of €126.97 for political purposes must register with Sipo and set up a bank account. At the end of the year all bank statements must be provided to Sipo detailing all donations received and all money paid out.

The third party must also make a statutory declaration that all money for political donations goes through the bank account.

In addition third parties cannot accept a donation from an individual of more than €6,348.69 or a donation of any value from somebody outside the State who is not an Irish citizen.

A failure to comply with these regulations can result in a summary fine of €1,269.74 and a €126.97 penalty for every day in which the third party fails to provide the donation statement.

Sipo has written to the Life Institute asking them to consider complying with the ethics regulations. A Sipo spokeswoman said the Life Institute had a case to answer if they were soliciting donations on their website for political purposes or for a leafleting campaign that was directly lobbying politicians.

“If they are saying that €100 keeps our phone bill going for a week and then they are giving out their [Fine Gael politicians’] telephone number, it suggests that it is for political purposes,” she said. “The information in the leaflet is for political purposes if they are actively encouraging people to lobby Fine Gael TDs to bring about a particular outcome, in this case the abortion debate.”

The institute is run by veteran pro-life campaigner Niamh Uí Bhriain. She has said supporters have made some 56,000 calls to Fine Gael politicians since last summer.

She described the Life Institute as a human rights and education organisation.

“Many organisations which run public-awareness campaigns are not registered with Sipo. Barnardos is an example, there are plenty of others,” she said.

Ms Uí Bhriain and her brother Donal Mac Mathúna set up the Pro Life Institute Limited in 2008 with an interest-free loan of €410,506.

Loan rules

Under Sipo rules a loan can count as a donation if it is given on more favourable terms than an organisation could expect to get if they borrowed the money from a bank.

In its first-year accounts, it stated the loan was from an “independent voluntary organisation sympathetic to the company’s aims and objectives”, and, despite being in a position to pay it back, they were “confident in the goodwill of the loan creditor”.

When asked by The Irish Times who had given them the loan, Ms Uí Bhriain did not disclose the name of the lender.

She said it was from Irish individuals, including a family member and from Youth Defence, which had raised money from Irish donors for the purposes of buying a premises. However, the purchase fell through and the loans were repaid.