Irish Family Planning Association contacted about George Soros money

Sipo expresses concerns that the grant contravenes Ireland’s rules on political funding

Amnesty International’s chief executive, Colm O’Gorman, said it was directed by the  Standards in Public Office Commission to return €137,000 it received. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Amnesty International’s chief executive, Colm O’Gorman, said it was directed by the Standards in Public Office Commission to return €137,000 it received. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

The Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) is in discussions about $150,000 (€127,449) it received from the George Soros Open Society Foundation because of concerns the grant contravened Ireland’s rules on political funding.

The development is the latest in a controversy over funding by the philanthropic organisation which the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo), the body that oversees Ireland’s electoral funding law, has decided is an illegal interference in the pending abortion referendum.

On Friday Amnesty International’s chief executive, Colm O’Gorman, said it was directed by Sipo two weeks’ ago to return €137,000 it received, even though in 2016 it was told the donation did not offend the political funding rules.

“Not asked, instructed,” he said on Twitter. “And under threat of criminal prosecution if we do not comply.”

Mr O’Gorman told The Irish Times the organisation was being asked “to comply with a law that violates human rights, and we can’t do that”. He said it is taking legal advice.

Both organisations received funding from Open Society in early 2016. A third organisation that also got funding, Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland, received €25,000 but returned it later in 2016, having been contacted by Sipo and having taken advice.

Leaked document

It is understood Sipo contacted all three groups in the months after its attention was drawn to a hacked Open Society strategy report that said the foundation funded the three Irish organisations in the context of the pending abortion referendum.

“With one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, a win there [Ireland] could impact other strongly Catholic countries in Europe, such as Poland, and provide much needed proof that change is possible, even in highly conservative places,” the leaked strategy document said.

Efforts to contact Sipo were not successful.

A spokeswoman for the IFPA said it was agreed between it and Sipo in 2016 that the grant from the foundation did not require the IFPA to register as a “third party” organisation under the electoral funding rules. The money was not being used for campaigning purposes, she said.

However, more recently there had been further correspondence from Sipo and the association is once again “in discussions with Sipo about the matter”.

‘Anti-choice’ website

Mr O’Gorman said it informed Sipo last year that the money was being used to promote the introduction of “human rights compliant legal abortion in Ireland” and so seeking the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. It was agreed this did not mean that the funding fell within Sipo’s ambit.

Linda Kavanagh of Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland said it disagreed with views expressed to it by Sipo in 2016 in relation to the funding, but “we decided in good faith to return the money”.

Mr O’Gorman said the recent change of mind from Sipo about the funding appeared to be based on Sipo receiving confirmation from the foundation about the leaked strategy document and its references to the purposes of the funding.

However he said Sipo had also been put under sustained pressure by a foreign “anti-choice” website, Citizengo.

Cora Sherlock, spokeswoman for the Pro-Life Campaign, said Amnesty was trying to “sell itself as being above the law and that is very wrong”. If the money was not returned it would “set a dangerous precedent”, she said.

Under Irish law, third party groups seeking to influence the outcome of a referendum campaign cannot receive more than €6,348 from a single donor in any calendar year and may not accept a foreign donation. It is expected the abortion referendum will be launched in February.