Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, has denied claims the cut in funding to Accord is part of a wider Government policy to withdraw financial support to Catholic Church agencies.
Accord, a Catholic Church run agency which offers marriage preparation courses and counselling, lost €378,000 in State funding for 2015. The withdrawn funding was for pre-marriage courses.
The Government has rejected claims the funding was withdrawn because of the church’s opposition to the same-sex marriage.
Coalition figures say funding will still be provided to Accord for counselling services from Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, which operates under the auspices of the Department of Children.
Spekaing on Wednesday afternoon, Minister for Children Dr James Reilly said the decision had nothing to do with the same sex marriage referendum.
“We’re in the midst of a campaign, people will try and draw on everything they can into the campaign. That decision made by Tusla, signed off on by their board has absolutely nothing to do with this referendum,” he said.
“It has to do with the fact that they’re reforming the system, and focusing their resources on the areas that they have direct legislative responsibility for which is child protection.”
Bishop of Elphin Dr Kevin Doran told the Irish Catholic newspaper it seemed to him that "if the State does have a commitment to marriage, as the Constitution requires it to do, it is a rather strange move to be withdrawing funding from pre-marriage preparation courses."
Speaking on RTÉ radio on Wednesday, Tusla chief executive Gordon Jeyes said Dr Doran's comments were utterly disingenuous.
“I think that’s utterly disingenuous. I don’t recognise that at all. And there has been no discussion with me along those lines ... We are looking at having to reduce services to stay within budget,” he said.
“People can try and make a correlation there but it’s like saying two and two make eight and three-quarters.”
He said the decision to cut funding was made by the Tusla executive and put to the board with no involvement by Government.
He said he was "very disappointed" by the Irish Catholic's coverage of the story because the ongoing funding of € 1.6 million had "not been mentioned".
Asked whether it had occured to him that making this move now would be controversial, Mr Jeyes said it hadn’t because he “ never wanted or expected it to coincide with the other debate which Ireland is presently having”.
He said funding had been cut in order for the agency to stay within budget.
“We have a level of budget which had been increased by Government but was still over €80 million short than our expenditure last year... and we have to prioritise. The days of just taking a little off everybody was not working.
“ We are reforming children’s services. It’s happening a bit more gradually than we would like but we need to retain a steady nerve in moving forward.”
He said the agency could not fund universal services and it thought funding could come from elsewhere to support pre-marriage preparation.
Asked whether the cut was essentially a slap on the wrist for the Catholic Church, Mr Jeyes said Tusla was still investing €1.6 million in Accord.
“We’re contracting them to work with us within our prioirities . We are not at the point when we can be a broader organisation funding universal services. I wish we could,” he said.
David Quinn of the Iona Institue said the cut in funding to Accord was “even more appalling in light of the fact that Tusla’s funding by the State was increased by € 26 million in the last budget and it has been awarded an € 8.3 million grant from Atlantic Philantrophies.”
“Every agency has suffered cutbacks since the economic crash, but at this point, when the economy is starting to recover, to simply axe the almost € 400,000 the State was giving the main marriage preparation organisation in the country for its marriage preparation courses beggars belief,”he said.
“We also note that Atlantic Philanthropies has awarded Tusla a grant of €8.3 million. Atlantic Philanthropies is the same organisation that has given millions of dollars in recent years to LGBT lobby groups to successfully push for the marriage referendum currently underway. Perhaps Atlantic Philanthropies would consider replacing the money Tusla was giving Accord as a gesture of good will?”
Mothers and Fathers Matter, a group campaigning for a No vote in the forthcoming same-sex marriage referendum, questioned the timing of the announcement, saying James Reilly had questions to answer.
“The timing of this announcement, within days of the Catholic bishops saying that they were supporting a no vote in this [referendum] is either political bumbling or you have to question the motivation of it,” said Keith Mills, a spokesperson for the group.
He questioned the suggestion that Tusla was having funding issues after “receing €26 million extra funding in the last budget.”
“ I know James Reilly is accident prone, he’s probably more accident prone than a one-legged man on the Pamplona bull run, but I mean this is very very bad optics and he has questions to answer,” he said.
Eileen King of the group said the Government had consistently said marriage was important during the debate about same-sex marriage.
“ So I guess the question we need to ask the government is if marriage is so important, why then are you cutting the funding to an organisation that prepares people for marriage?” she said.
Asked whether the group accepted that the Government cutting funding to a Catholic organisation which prepares people for a Catholic marriage did not mean it was undermining marriage, Mr Mills said almost 70 per cent of marriages in the country were conducted within Catholic churches.
“It [the courses] are provided by people with a Catholic ethos but they embrace the whole institution of civil marriage.... If the government believes marriage is important surely providing support for people getting married is a key element to that?”
Independent TD Mattie McGrath described the decision as “wilfully vindictive and counterproductive”.
“Any bland assurances that these matters are not directly related to the government’s broader social agenda have no credibility whatsoever,” he said.
“To offer the limp excuse that this is about savings when the Government is busy shouting from the rooftops how well the economy is doing reveals the outright lie at the root of this decision.”