The Catholic Church, the HAI and Iona have all failed to register their political activity with SIPO

by Michael Nugent on April 17, 2015

CC HAI IONA

Atheist Ireland has registered with SIPO, the Standards in Public Office Commission, as we are a body that seeks to influence public policy. We have also written to the Standards Commission asking them to ask the Catholic Church, the Humanist Association of Ireland, and the Iona Institute to also register with them.

One of Atheist Ireland’s policies is to promote integrity in public life, and an end to the nod-and-wink approach to Irish politics, where we are expected to ignore religious discrimination by pretending it doesn’t exist, and where the law can be ignored or fudged to mean whatever people want it to mean.

We know why the Humanist Association of Ireland may be reluctant to register with SIPO, as it has it has also signed up for a different law (the Civil Registration Act) that allows it to nominate marriage solemnisers on condition that it does not promote a political cause. Ironically, that law also requires that the HAI should be ethical.

But why have the Catholic Church and the Iona Institute not registered? They constantly complain that religion is being driven from the public square. Registering with SIPO is an opportunity for them to put their feet firmly in the public square. We invite them to join us in the democratic arena while acting in accordance with the laws of the State.

What is SIPO and what is a Third Party?

The Standards in Public Office Commission has a supervisory role under the Ethics Acts and the Electoral Acts. These provide for disclosure of interests, including any material factors which could influence Government Ministers, members of parliament, or public servants in performing their official duties.

People or organisations who seek political change come under three categories: a registered political party, an election candidate or a Third Party.

A Third Party means any individual or group who or which accepts, in a particular calendar year, a donation for political purposes exceeding the value of €100. The donation can be in money, property or goods, free use of property or goods, free supply of services, or a donation in kind.

Also, a Third Party cannot accept for political purposes a donation exceeding €100 where the name and address of the donor are not known; a cash donation exceeding €200; a donation from a corporate donor exceeding €200 in any calendar year unless the corporate donor is registered with SIPO; a donation from anyone (other than an Irish citizen) who lives outside the island of Ireland; or an aggregate donation or donations from a single donor exceeding €2,500 in any calendar year.

Political purposes for a Third Party include any of the following purposes:

  1. To promote or oppose, directly or indirectly, any interests of a political party of politician;
  2. To present, directly or indirectly, any policies or a particular policy of a third party;
  3. To present, directly or indirectly, any comments of a third party (with regard to any policies of any political party, political group, politician, third party or candidate) at an election or referendum or otherwise;
  4. To promote or oppose, directly or indirectly, the interests of a third party in connection with the conduct or management of any campaign conducted with a view to promoting or procuring a particular outcome in relation to a policy or policies or functions of the Government or any public authority;
  5. To promote or oppose, directly or indirectly, the election of a candidate, or to present any policies or views of a candidate, at an election or otherwise;
  6. Otherwise to seek to influence the outcome of the election or a referendum or a campaign.

Quite clearly Atheist Ireland, the Catholic Church, the Humanist Association of Ireland and the Iona Institute all fall under several of these categories. Yet of these four bodies, only Atheist Ireland has registered with the Standards Commission as a Third Party.

The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church has arguably influenced public policy in Ireland more than any other Third Party, and it continues today to engage in activities that clearly fall within the “political purposes” categories of this law.

On 13 April 2015, A spokesman for Ireland’s Catholic Bishops has said the Church may be forced to end the practice of civil registration of marriages conducted in churches if the same-sex marriage referendum passes, as the church and state definitions of marriage will hbe fundamentally different.

This is clearly a political position, not a theological one. Based on its own argument, the Catholic Church should already have stopped performing the civil aspects of weddings after the divorce referendum, which has already changed the definition of state marriage to make it fundamentally different from that of Catholic Church marriage.

On 13 March 2013, the Catholic Church made a submission to the Constitutional Convention on the issue of same-sex marriage, in which it said that defining the institution of marriage as a voluntary union of one man and one woman does not constitute unjust discrimination, and that it would be damaging to the common good should civil law render same sex unions equivalent to marriage.

On 10 March 2015, the Catholic Bishops Conference said that “We cannot support an amendment to the Constitution which redefines marriage and effectively places the union of two men, or two women, on a par with the marriage relationship between a husband and wife which is open to the procreation of children.”

On 10 January 2013, the Catholic Church attended and spoke at parliamentary hearings in the Seanad chamber on proposed abortion legislation. The Bishop of Elphin asked the Oireachtas to consider several policies, that did not involve legislating for abortion, including guidelines which continue to exclude the direct and intentional killing of the unborn, or a referendum to overturn the X case judgment.

On 18 December 2012, the four Catholic Archbishops of Ireland issues a joint statement in response to the decision by the Government to legislate for abortion, which was clearly issued with a view to promoting or procuring a particular outcome in relation to this Government policy.

The Catholic Church, like Atheist Ireland, is a partner in the structured dialogue process between the Irish Government and religious and nonreligious philosophical bodies. A Minister for State at the Department of the Taoiseach has described this process in the Dail as being intended to assist the Government in developing policies into the future.

The Humanist Association of Ireland

The Humanist Association of Ireland also engages in activities that clearly fall within the “political purposes” categories of this law.

On 15 April 2015, the HAI called for a yes vote in the upcoming marriage equality referendum.

On 7 April 2015, the HAI said that it had been in dialogue with the Government since 2007 on making access to schools more equitable for people of no religion but the organisation’s views had been ignored. It described a clause in the Admission to Schools Bill as “simply outrageous.”

On 24 March 2015, the HAI launched a poster campaign about schools admissions policy, saying of this policy that “This is simply wrong.. It is unconscionable that the State can stand over this.”

On 23 January 2015, the HAI said that the Government could either fine schools or lower capitation grants for schools which insisted on proof of religion in admissions.

On 30 June 2014, the HAI threatened to take legal action against the State over the interpretation of legislation which has stopped it conducting outdoor ceremonies. The HAI said it had had multiple meetings with the General Registrar about this issue.

The HAI website, on its about page, says that it makes appropriate submissions to Government for changes in the Constitution, Legislation and State practices; and organizes formal campaigns to further the aims of the Association.

The HAI website, on its campaigns page, says that on an ongoing basis, the HAI is working towards a secular state and the equal treatment of people of no religion in the Constitution, in legislation and other practices of the State and its agencies by campaigning in a number of areas. It then lists the specific changes to the Constitution, laws and State practices that it is campaigning for.

The HAI, like Atheist Ireland, is a partner in the structured dialogue process between the Irish Government and religious and nonreligious philosophical bodies. A Minister for State at the Department of the Taoiseach has described this process in the Dail as being intended to assist the Government in developing policies into the future.

The Iona Institute

The Iona Institute clearly falls within the “political purposes” categories of this law. On the Press Releases section of its website, the Institute links to several press releases that seek to influence public policy with headings such as:

  • State must consider why most European countries ban surrogate motherhood
  • State must respect Catholic ethos of Mater Hospital
  • Child-care policy must respect parental choice and not favour creches over home
  • Health Minister James Reilly should suspend public funding of spunout.ie
  • Government must move to prohibit surrogacy in the interests of children
  • Convention should recommend amending not deleting women in the home provision
  • Permitting assisted suicide would send a terrible signal to vulnerable people
  • Tanaiste’s speech an attack on religious freedom
  • Children’s rights referendum must not give the State excessive power of intervention
  • Government’s surrogacy guidelines must not ‘split’ motherhood or exploit women

The Iona Institute seems to be suggesting that it is not directly campaigning in the upcoming marriage equality referendum. However, content on its website clearly falls under the category “otherwise to seek to influence the outcome of the election or a referendum or a campaign.”

Its front page on 17 April 2015 consists mostly of articles supporting a no vote in the referendum, with headings such as:

  • Our video explains the case for man/woman marriage
  • Religious representatives seek conscience clause in marriage referendum
  • Children have no right to a mother and father says Simon Coveney
  • Does the Yes side believe in the ‘Irish mammy’ or not?
  • The teaching of the Church on marriage today

Also, on 16 April 2015, the Iona Institute criticised multinational companies for calling for a Yes vote in the marriage referendum, and asked whether the Taoiseach would be so keen about multinationals getting involved in Irish politics if they were endorsing particular political parties.

Also, prominent members or patrons of the Institute, including David Quinn, Breda O’Brien and John Murray, have been interviewed on national media promoting what is essentially the policy position of the Iona Institute on the issue. This raises the question as to whether these individuals should be registered as Third parties themselves, if they are in receipt of €100 or more in expenses or kind from the Institute towards these personal political activities?

Summary

One of Atheist Ireland’s policies is to promote integrity in public life, and an end to the nod-and-wink approach to Irish politics, where we are expected to ignore religious discrimination by pretending it doesn’t exist, and where the law can be ignored or fudged to mean whatever people want it to mean.

Atheist Ireland has registered with the Standards in Public Office Commission, as we are a body that seeks to influence public policy. We have also written to the Standards Commission asking them to ask the Catholic Church, the Humanist Association of Ireland, and the Iona Institute to also register with them.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Citizen Wolf April 17, 2015 at 7:26 am

What does it benefit Irish society if third parties, as defined above, register with SIPO? Nobody is under any illusion about the agenda of organizations such as the catholic in regards issues such as the upcoming referendum. It’s not hidden, so I’m wondering why you want people to register with SIPO. Why do you think it would make any practical difference to Irish life?

Obviously if political parties or TDs receive money or other contributions from organizations or individuals, then these should be declared, but I see that as different to individuals or organizations who have a particular view on different issues. For example, I’m sure that the Dog’s Trust or the DSPCA have strong views on certain animal welfare related issues, so do you think that they should also register with SIPO?

Or am I misunderstanding the whole thing?

2 Michael Kingsford Gray April 17, 2015 at 8:28 am

This is merely my own personal feeling, but I have, over the last few years, garnered an impression of the long-term modus operandi of Atheist Ireland in general, and Mr Nugent in particular.

In short, I think it is this:-
To hold people accountable to their own publicly professed standards, as well as the standards that they request/demand from others.
And to do so with a steady long-term strategy of repeatedly confronting them with examples of hypocrisy.

There are several long-term results that one might expect from their targets in this inquisition:
1) Correct the misunderstanding with additional supported evidence.
2) Admit to hypocrisy and change.
3) Admit to hypocrisy, but not change
4) Admit to hypocrisy, but claim coercion.
5) Deny agency, and assert that everyone on the planet is out to get them, that they are rape-enablers, Irish wankers, etc

Only 1) and 2) make the interlocutors look good.
But publicly exposing responses 3)+, AI has nothing left to do.
The very responses in themselves, when read by the sane folk to which AI aim their messages, is enough to dissuade onlookers.

And I stress that this appears to be a Long Term strategy.

One with which I did not initially agree! But now value.

3 Michael Nugent April 17, 2015 at 8:51 am

Citizen Wolf, the purpose of the legislation is to limit the extent to which people with large pockets can use money to shape political outcomes, and also to make transparent where the money is coming from.

If the restrictions were limited to political parties and candidates, then people would just set up front organisations that would operate outside the restrictions, hence the need for Third Parties to be included.

4 citizen_wolf April 17, 2015 at 10:49 am

Michael
Yes I understand and totally agree with the need for political donations or influence to be transparent.

Having had a cursory look at the SIPO website, it seems to apply to members of the Dail or functionaries of the state. While I agree with you that anyone in a position to influence the political landscape should be open and transparent in what they are doing, I don’t follow who the legal framework around SIPO applies to bodies like AI (Not that I think it shouldn’t).

As I said, perhaps I’m misunderstanding the legal framework, but:
1) Is there a legal obligation on organizations such as AI or the catholic church to register with SIPO?
2) Who decides what constitutes influence or benefit in kind etc in relation to any particular issue (this may vary depending on the issue).
3) How does SIPO determine and effectively manage whether any particular organization is adhering to the guidelines as laid out under SIPO? ie what powers do they have to do a proper audit?
4) What legal powers would SIPO have in relation to non-governmental organizations such as AI or the catholic church if SIPO made a judgement that any particular organization were operating outside the ethical guidelines.

My apologies, I don’t expect you to do all the footwork for me, but just on the face of it, I’m failing to see where this will get you. As I said above, I certainly agree with you in principle in regards to ethical standards and transparency, but I’m just unsure that even if the catholic church were to sign up to SIPO whether anything would change.

Maybe I’m just too cynical and jaded.

5 citizen_wolf April 17, 2015 at 10:51 am

Edit: Last sentence of the 2nd paragraph: replace ‘who’ with ‘whether’.

6 Michael Nugent April 17, 2015 at 11:13 am
7 citizen_wolf April 17, 2015 at 11:44 am

Thanks for the link. That’s wide-ranging in its scope and could potentially encompass A LOT of people (individuals and organizations).

As with so many things, it comes down to enforcement. Clearly the catholic church fall under this framework in a number of counts and so far, as you point out, have not registered with SIPO. Who’s going to do anything about that? And who’s to say whether any particular monetary (just to make it easy for discussion) donation to the catholic church is meant for political purposes? Obviously the church has many political agendas, but do all monies received by the church go towards meeting those political agendas? Who’s to say? Honesty, could even the church say? Donations at mass each week – could you say that they’re political donations, because ultimately they help maintain the workings of the church, some of which are political in nature.

In many ways, perhaps the guidelines are too broad and wide-ranging?

Anyway, thanks again for the link and for highlighting this issue. I had previously only thought that government organizations and those working for state institutions had to declare donations.

8 Bob April 17, 2015 at 2:30 pm

em if it just me or does author seem to completely unfamiliar about church structure. There is no group called the RCC.

9 Michael Nugent April 17, 2015 at 11:11 pm

Bob, however the Church is structured, there must be entities within the Church that would qualify by virtue of their activities.

10 Bob April 18, 2015 at 9:03 am

Every diocese, every order and lay society or group has its own separate budget. Compliance would be horrifically complicated and any charity is going to baulk at the notion that they may only receive 2,500 Euro from any one donor a year.

The Church does influence politically but this week we could stay the same is true of Twitter and countless other groups that are invisible to SIPO. There are estimated 24,000 charities in Ireland. May of these have influenced local or national politics.

11 Michael Nugent April 18, 2015 at 3:47 pm

Well, the Catholic Church body that most overtly seeks to influence public policy might be the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference. If that is a standalone body, it must be funded from somewhere and must have its own budget. It could register with SIPO, as a start.

However many other church bodies with budgets there might be, it is not really that complicated to administer. If they are not trying to influence public policy, they don’t have to do anything. If they are, they have to be accountable.

The donation limit only applies to funds that are used for political purposes. If a charity is not engaged in politics, then it can raise any amount it wishes from anyone. If it is engaged in mostly charitable work and some political advocacy, then the limits apply only to the funding of their political advocacy.

12 Bob April 18, 2015 at 4:20 pm

But the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference isn’t a standalone group. It is an assembly like the G8. One can’t donate to the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. Now this assembly does occasionally does pledge resources to causes (like the drugs imitative in 1997 or Trocaire in the 1970s). The SIPO list is hugely incomplete. Groups attempt to influence public policy daily without being think-tanks as such. Even very obvious think-tank examples like TASC and Social Justice Ireland are not even mentioned on their site.

A lot of church criticism stems from fundamental misunderstandings of church structure and unrealistic expectations of it.

13 Michael Nugent April 19, 2015 at 6:54 pm

Well, that’s a problem for the church, then.

Like any other organisation, it should have to shape its structures so that it can comply with the law, not vice versa.

14 citizen_wolf April 20, 2015 at 12:36 pm

MN
**Like any other organisation, it should have to shape its structures so that it can comply with the law, not vice versa.**

I don’t agree with you here Michael. Some laws can be very poorly thought through and have many negative unintended consequences. To blankly state that organizations/groups/people should comply with the law is a bad way to view the situation. The law should be there to serve the people, not the other way around.

15 Michael Nugent April 20, 2015 at 3:39 pm

You’re obviously right as a general principle, and I did phrase it ambiguously, but what I meant in this context is that organisations should comply with *this* law.

I don’t see this law as overly complicated to implement – whatever entity is involved in political advocacy simply has to open a separate bank account and monitor it or else stop their political advocacy – and I do see it as useful for the integrity of public life.

And whatever the myriad structures the Catholic Church has, at a minimum the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference engages in serious political advocacy, including directly lobbying the Taoiseach and Government and addressing an Oireachtas committee on abortion law.

As you say, that body occasionally pledges resources to causes, so it must have a budget and bank account. There is no complication whatsoever for the Bishops Conference to register as a Third Party, other than the belief that it is somehow above or beyond the law of the land.

The church could then talk to SIPO about how to integrate its structure into facilitating the purpose of the law, which is to make the funding of political advocacy democratically accountable.

16 citizen_wolf April 20, 2015 at 4:31 pm

Thanks for the clarification. We agree on the issue of integrity in public life and the need for transparency for organizations regarding their political goals. I agree with you that this issue needs to be discussed and thanks for raising my awareness in regards to this particular legislation.

But I think perhaps you’re more optimistic than me that the RCC in Ireland will do anything about it though :(

Perhaps I should offer up a few ‘Our Fathers’ to St Jude 😉

17 Bob April 20, 2015 at 5:17 pm

” There is no complication whatsoever for the Bishops Conference to register as a Third Party.”

I cannot allow such a dishonest remark to go unchallenged.

“including directly lobbying the Taoiseach and Government and addressing an Oireachtas committee on abortion law” I directly lobby the Taoiseach and Government. Do I need to register as well? No, as the entity is only considered a the third party if they receive €100 or more for lobbying. The reason I as Bob am not eligible is the fact I that have not received €100 funding for lobbying. The Bishops Conference isn’t a charity or an organization. It doesn’t have a budget or a bank account. It can’t receive donations.

So the question might be do the dioceses receive donations for lobbing , well they receive and depend nearly entirely on donations but I have never heard of people donating for political purposes. In fact I don’t think it would even be accepted. Bishops don’t run poster campaigns or billboards. They don’t have lobbying expenses.

If you are going to preach about following rules it would be prudent to learn them yourself first.

18 Michael Nugent April 20, 2015 at 6:05 pm

Well, do you agree that (a) the Bishops Conference exists as an entity, whatever its constitution, and (b) it engages in political advocacy, and (c) that political advocacy costs money, and (d) that money must come from somewhere?

19 Bob April 21, 2015 at 4:22 pm

It does engage in lobbying but such lobbing does not have costs. I know. I have arranged press releases for entirely separate topics and they don’t cost anything (I work in science). I have no idea of what you think they are doing. The burden of proof falls on the accuser.

20 citizen_wolf April 22, 2015 at 6:59 pm

Bob
**It does engage in lobbying but such lobbing does not have costs. I know. I have arranged press releases for entirely separate topics and they don’t cost anything (I work in science).**

Assuming that the press releases have to do with your job in science, then there most definitely are costs. The costs are your salary.

Those working for the church (whichever part) receive their salary from the church. At a minimum, those are the costs.

21 SashaGrainger April 23, 2015 at 6:56 am

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