Breda O’Brien: Foreign funding buys undemocratic influence

The recent revelations regarding Glen’s financial governance mask a bigger problem

The current questions concerning the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network’s (Glen) governance and financial practices would never have emerged into the public domain if it had not been for the courageous integrity of Áine Duggan, the erstwhile chief executive.

In 2015, I raised issues about the enormous amounts of money that Atlantic Philanthropies was pouring into Glen. On its website, Atlantic Philanthropies details how it gave $4,727,861 in a period from 2005 to 2010.

As a result, Glen went from a tiny organisation to a well-oiled lobbying machine virtually overnight, boasting about how it had access to successive ministers and how easy it was to gain their support.

No one in the media was interested in establishing how that happened, or what impact it had on democracy in Ireland.


It may well turn out that in the current controversy Glen was engaging in sloppy, unprofessional financial practice rather than misappropriation of funds, but if there is wrongdoing, it will not have been revealed by dogged investigative journalism.

There are organisations deemed worthy of constant scrutiny and there are those that receive a free pass again and again.

For example, there was virtually no follow-up to Greg Daly's story in the Irish Catholic concerning donations to Irish organisations from the Open Society Foundation (OSF) funded by billionaire George Soros.

Repeal campaign

Leaked documents from OSF reveal that it gave funds to three Irish organisations so that they could “work collectively on a campaign to repeal Ireland’s constitutional amendment granting equal rights to an implanted embryo as a pregnant woman”.

The hope is that “a win could impact on other strongly Catholic countries, such as Poland, and provide much needed proof that change is possible, even in highly conservative places”.

OSF has never denied the authenticity of any of the leaked material. In a Guardian article, Chris Stone, president of OSF, said that most of what was leaked "is work we are proud to be doing".

Those three organisations were the Abortion Rights Campaign, Amnesty International and the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA).

According to the Electoral Act 1997, a third party is any individual or group, other than a registered political party or election candidate, who or which accept in a particular calendar year a donation for political purposes exceeding the value of €100.

Anyone who falls within this category is obliged to register as a third party. Amnesty International and the IFPA consider themselves not to be third parties.

Receiving money from foreign bodies for political purposes is illegal.

The odd thing is that the small pro-choice group, the Abortion Rights Campaign, had to hand back its donation from Soros. It did so “without prejudice” and without accepting it had done anything wrong, because the Standards in Public Life Commission (SiPO) threatened to refer the matter to An Garda Síochána if the donation were not returned.

Yet the leaked Soros document states that the money was given to all three organisations “to work collectively on a campaign to repeal Ireland’s constitutional amendment”.

Political action

However, SiPO accepted Amnesty International’s explanation it was using Soros’ €137,000 to carry out opinion polling and “research into models of abortion law reform that might bring Ireland into compliance with its international human rights obligations”.

“Abortion law reform” is political action.  The phrase “compliance with its international human rights obligations” is ironic indeed, given that what is in question is the removal of human rights from one category of human beings.

In a radio interview, Colm O’Gorman, chief executive of Amnesty International Ireland, was asked, “The Irish Constitution protects the right to life of the pregnant woman and her baby. Now, if we can protect and save both lives, what’s so wrong with that?”

O’Gorman went silent for several seconds before replying: “We can’t”. Scarcely an uncontroversial position for an alleged human rights organisation.

But SiPO did not find Amnesty’s explanation of what it does with Soros’s money controversial, or to require further investigation.

The IFPA states that it had accepted €132,500 on the strict understanding that it be used for “religious, charitable, scientific, literary or educational purposes”.  The funding is used to “promote an understanding of abortion and abortion services which is informed by best international practice”.

The IFPA's website reveals Niall Behan, the chief executive, speaking at a Coalition to Repeal the Eighth meeting.

I am not reflexively anti-OSF. Some of its work, such as its campaign for migrants in the Mediterranean, tallies with my own views.

But when a fabulously wealthy foundation pours money into changing a country’s laws or constitution in Ireland or elsewhere, it should be subject to the most stringent scrutiny no matter what its aims are, because money buys undemocratic influence and power.