Breda O’Brien: Asking questions about funding for referendum campaign

‘Groupthink has been exalted to an Irish sacrament’

‘Let’s not forget Marriage Equality, whose name even ended up on the referendum ballot paper.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Suppose I confessed that over the past number of years, the Iona Institute, of which I am an unpaid patron, has received millions of American dollars to advance a particular agenda.

Those dollars have allowed us to grow from a single-person organisation to a highly skilled, mobilised, fully professionalised lobbying machine employing seven full-time staff and numerous consultants.

Those staff and consultants operate “inside the machinery of government”, and people associated with Iona have ended up on key boards such as the Irish Human Rights and Equality Authority.

It enabled us to change the agenda on a government working group in 2006 and persuaded it to make recommendations that were ruled out in the original remit of that group.


Suppose I admitted that between September and November 2009 alone, Iona met with more than 40 politicians, including three ministers one-to-one.

When I tell you that absolutely none of that is true of Iona because it has never received any American money and never had instant access to key politicians, but that instead I’m describing the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), eyes will glaze over and the salivating interest will disappear.

Groupthink has been exalted to an Irish sacrament. While journalists were targeting tiny bootstrap conservative organisations and accusing them of being American-funded, GLEN, the most successful lobby group in Irish history, was swimming in greenbacks.

Shedloads of money

This is a story for investigative journalists that doesn’t even require much investigation. Try typing GLEN into the search box of the Atlantic Philanthropies website.

Read the Atlantic publication, Civil Partnership and Ireland – From a Minority to a Majority, to see the step by step strategy. Why bother to conceal it? There will be no outrage, no consequences.

GLEN did everything described in the first paragraphs of this article while registered as a charity with the Revenue Commissioners. GLEN Campaign for Marriage registered with the Standards in Public Office Commission in 2015 – will this affect its fundraising?

If Atlantic Philanthropies is beyond question, if shedloads of money used to advance agendas render you beyond scrutiny, we should just let the anniversary year of 2016 go by without comment, as an utterly failed Republic.

And what shedloads. According to Atlantic, GLEN received $4,727,860 between 2005 and 2011.

Yes, four and three quarter million dollars. (Incidentally, GLEN explained to The Irish Times in 2013 that it gets only half its funding from Atlantic.)

Atlantic explains that in 2005, “GLEN was essentially a voluntary organisation with a single-funded post working on gay HIV strategies, which was funded by the HSE”. GLEN does not provide services. It focuses on policy and legislative change.

By the last report, Catalysing LGBT Equality and Visibility in Ireland, GLEN is described thus: "Their multi-year grant from Atlantic enabled them to ramp up their work into a full-time, highly professionalised lobbying machine. It works 'inside' the machinery of government where it uses a 'principled pragmatist' model in which it consolidates support, wins over the doubtful and pacifies those who are opposed.

“GLEN leaders believed that the most viable way to embed long-lasting social change was to legislate incrementally, waiting to advocate for civil marriage until the population was acculturated to the ordinariness of same-sex unions.”

It must be the most successful “acculturation” in Irish history.

Legal protections

The only acceptable narrative is that this is a benign grassroots movement, because if we admitted that it is instead a slick, elite movement of highly educated professionals funded from abroad we might have to admit we were skilfully manipulated. And that could not be true.

Atlantic credits itself with securing civil partnership in 2010, describing it as "some of the most far-reaching legal protections for gay and lesbian couples in the world".

Civil partnership affords far greater rights than “US state-based civil marriage because the latter cannot include federal rights in critical areas such as immigration, tax and health benefits”.

Funny, I thought civil partnership was discriminatory and second class.

In 2009, GLEN had 348 media appearances – 179 broadcasts and the rest ranged from national newspapers to the Law Society Gazette. Almost one per day.

Let's not forget Marriage Equality, whose name even ended up on the referendum ballot paper. They got a mere $475,215 from Atlantic.

But it enabled them to set up a full-time office, to lobby and use “backroom” tactics like “hiring professional political advisers who were working with the government on other issues to report back on the government’s thinking on same-sex marriage”.

Oh, and the other part of Yes Equality, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL)? From 2001 to 2010, it got $7,727,700 and another $3,829,693 in 2010 and 2013. Sure, ICCL didn't spend all that on redefining marriage. Just some of it. Do tell, ICCL, exactly how much.

This is not Atlantic Philanthropies funding a hospital or school. This is foreign money being systematically invested to change public opinion, to deliver seamlessly a Yes in a referendum that has enormous consequences for family law for generations.

All the while soothing us by spinning it as just “seventeen little words”. Can American money buy an Irish referendum? Let’s wait and see.