Atheist Ireland reported the Humanist Association of Ireland to the Standards in Public Office (Sipo) commission, over a €10,000 donation made to Education Equality, a small secular education campaign group.
Education Equality had to return €5,500 of the grant this year following a warning that it exceeded the cap on donations to political groups. The group campaigns to end the “Baptism barrier” that allows religious-denominated schools give admission priority to children of their own ethos.
Michael Nugent, chair of Atheist Ireland, said the group reported the donation to Sipo, the State political donations watchdog, on the grounds it breached Irish law.
Several members of Atheist Ireland left the Humanist Association of Ireland a number of years ago, following disagreements with the governance of the organisation, Mr Nugent said.
Under the Electoral Act, any organisation involved in a referendum or campaigns to change political policy which takes donations is classified as a “third party”. Legislation outlines “third parties” cannot receive more than €2,500 from an individual or group in a year, or accept any foreign donations.
Human rights campaign groups have criticised their categorisation by Sipo as “third parties”, arguing human rights-based work is not political campaigning.
Sipo wrote to Education Equality in January 2017, querying the group’s receipt of a €10,000 donation from the Humanist Association of Ireland.
The organisation received €2,000 in one year, and €8,000 the next from the Humanist Association of Ireland, and had to return €5,500 of the second donation, or face legal action for breaching political finance law.
April Duff, Education Equality legal officer, said the Sipo decision was “frustrating” for the small group, and said the returned grant funding was due to last the organisation “many years”.
Last week Amnesty International in Ireland revealed Sipo had requested the organisation return a €137,000 grant received from the New York-based Open Society Foundation, which is financed by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. The organisation said it “will not comply” with what it termed as “indefensible law”.
The grant was to be used by Amnesty in their "My Body My Rights" campaign to liberalise Ireland's abortion laws. Colm O'Gorman, chief executive of Amnesty, said the organisation would challenge the decision.
It is illegal for third parties to receive donations from non-Irish citizens living outside of Ireland. Prominent anti-abortion groups The Life Institute and Youth Defence did not respond to questions asking if they ever accepted donations from abroad.
Eric J Scheidler, director of US group the Pro-Life Action League, said he was aware “individual pro-life Americans have made donations to Irish pro-life groups”. He said the most commonly known anti-abortion groups in American would be Youth Defence, and the Northern Ireland-based group Precious Life.
Mr Scheidler said while the Pro-Life Action League never held fundraising events for Irish anti-abortion groups, “on one occasion an ad hoc group of individual donors held a minor fundraising event for them”. But he said that fundraising event was over five years ago.
Mr O’Gorman said Amnesty does not “actively seek support” from individuals based outside of Ireland.
But he added that if individuals from abroad made donations through the group’s website they were not refused. “These donations would be for small amounts and account for a small percentage of our overall supporter base,” he said.