How the so-called Irish Catholic newspaper has manufactured a controversy about Atheist Ireland and the Green Party

In the past few days the so-called* Irish Catholic newspaper has manufactured and escalated a controversy about Atheist Ireland and the Green Party, using poor research and failures in basic journalistic standards. It has also misled its readers by failing to report its own role in the controversy.

Most significantly, it has not reported to its readers that it has already apologised by email to Atheist Ireland for not fully reading a clarification sent to them before it republished inaccurate claims. Instead, even after sending that apology, it has again published further misleading claims about the manufactured controversy.

Atheist Ireland has contacted the Press Ombudsman to see if we can make a complaint about the so-called ‘Irish Catholic’ under the Code of Practice for Newspaper and Magazines. However, we cannot do this because the Irish Catholic is no longer a member of the Press Council of Ireland. We invite it to rejoin the Press Council so that we can make a formal complaint about it.

* Note: The Irish Catholic newspaper repeatedly refers to Atheist Ireland’s Dublin Declaration on Secularism and our Secular Statement as the ‘so-called Dublin Declaration’ and ‘so-called Secular Statement’. In order to show due respect for the Irish Catholic’s ethos and values, this article occasionally refers to the so-called Irish Catholic newspaper.

1. Overview of the manufactured controversy

The controversy began legitimately on 16 May, when David Quinn (so-called Irish Catholic columnist and former editor) misinterpreted reports on the Atheist Ireland website about a Secular Statement agreed between Atheist Ireland and Green Party election candidates. We accept that David made this initial mistake in good faith. He asked for clarification on Twitter, and immediately received clarification from Atheist Ireland’s Dublin Regional chairperson Ashling O’Brien. So, from 16 May, David had been explicitly informed that the Secular Statement agreed between Atheist Ireland and the Green Party did not include the clause ‘State education should be secular,’ but instead included the clause ‘Citizens in Ireland should have the option of a secular education for their children’.

On 19 May, the so-called Irish Catholic newspaper published an article titled ‘Eamon Ryan backs end to funding for Catholic schools.’ This article claimed that “Green Party candidate Eamon Ryan has backed a campaign to end State funding of Catholic schools.” It accurately said that The Green Party supported a Secular Statement based on the Dublin Declaration, then continued the article as if the words ‘based on’ meant ‘identical to’. Michael Kelly (so-called Irish Catholic editor) then emailed Atheist Ireland saying that Eamon Ryan was asking us to correct this allegation (which we had never made). We emailed the newspaper to clarify the situation, and we updated our website to reflect this.

Later that day, the so-called Irish Catholic published another article titled ‘Eamon Ryan backs away from attack on Catholic education.’ This article repeated the same false allegation that Atheist Ireland was claiming that the Green Party supported an end to State funding for Catholic schools. Despite partially quoting from Atheist Ireland’s clarification email, the article simply ignored the part of that email that clarified that this allegation was not true. Atheist Ireland then emailed the newspaper and asked them to correct this article and to apologise for misrepresenting us. When we got no response to this, we published an article on our website titled ‘The Irish Catholic newspaper is misrepresenting Eamon Ryan, the Green Party and Atheist Ireland.’

Yesterday morning, 20 May, so-called Irish Catholic editor Michael Kelly emailed Atheist Ireland and apologised for neglecting to read the link that we included in our email to him, in which we had clarified how the Secular Statement evolved and what it was that the Green Party had signed up to. We assumed that the newspaper would convey that apology to its readers and correct its mistake.

Instead, it published a third article, titled ‘Eamon Ryan clarifies support for Catholic schools.’ This article ignored the mistake it had already apologised for, and made further misleading allegations about Atheist Ireland. It claimed that ‘Atheist Ireland has now admitted that neither Mr Ryan nor his party colleagues signed that declaration’, despite the fact that Atheist Ireland had never claimed that in the first place.

This article again blurred the distinction, that the Irish Catholic was by now perfectly well aware of, between the Dublin Declaration and the Secular Statement. It also portrayed the overall story as happening ‘after confusion arose,’ as if the ‘confusion’ was a passive natural occurrence, rather than something that the newspaper had maintained and escalated after any initial legitimate confusion had been clarified. We accept that David Quinn made his initial mistake in good faith, but we are very disappointed with how the so-called ‘Irish Catholic’ newspaper has responded since.

2. The background to the controversy

Atheist Ireland promotes an ethical secular State that does not give any preference or financial support to any religions, or indeed to atheism. As part of that policy, we promote the Dublin Declaration on Secularism and the Place of Religion in Public Life, which was adopted at the World Atheist Convention in Dublin in 2011.

For the 2014 local and European elections, Atheist Ireland sought support from candidates for secular policies, using the Dublin Declaration on Secularism as our starting point. Atheist Ireland has Regional Committees who were free to decide on adaptations to the Dublin Declaration on Secularism, to suit the particular conditions on the ground in their regions at this time.

Among the first European Parliament candidates to endorse this process was Mark Dearey of the Green Party. He had discussions with Atheist Ireland’s Cavan Monaghan branch chairperson John Hamill, and together they agreed on revisions to the Dublin Declaration, that resulted in a Secular Statement that the Green Party supports and that we are asking other candidates to support.

One of the differences between these two documents is that the Dublin Declaration says that State education should be secular, while the Secular Statement says that citizens should have the option of a secular education for their children. So Atheist Ireland’s policy is more strongly secular than the agreed Secular Statement, which is what one would expect in any agreed statement between different groups with different agendas.

3. The original confusion – Tweets by David Quinn

David Quinn of the Iona Institute is a so-called Irish Catholic columnist and past editor. On 16 May he tweeted the following:

Atheist Ireland accepts that David Quinn made this mistake in good faith, and that he would have seen this as a legitimate story to clarify. It seems that his misinterpretation arose from the fact that Atheist Ireland reported, accurately, that we were asking election candidates to support a Secular Statement based on the Dublin Declaration on Secularism, and that David either missed or misinterpreted the phrase ‘based on’.

David immediately got the clarification that he requested from Ashling O’Brien, the chairperson of the Dublin Regional branch of Atheist Ireland. Ashling told him:

David Quinn then tweeted:

And Ashling O’Brien replied:

So from 16 May, David Quinn had been informed that the Secular Statement agreed between Atheist Ireland and the Green Party did not include the clause ‘State education should be secular,’ but instead included the clause ‘Citizens in Ireland should have the option of a secular education for their children’.

4. The first a article – ‘Eamon Ryan backs end to funding for Catholic schools’

On 19 May, The Irish Catholic newspaper published an article titled ‘Eamon Ryan backs end to funding for Catholic schools.’ It began:

“Green Party candidate Eamon Ryan has backed a campaign to end State funding of Catholic schools. Mr Ryan, who is running in the European elections in Dublin, is supporting a so-called secular statement distributed by atheist campaigners. The document also calls for an end to charitable status for religious bodies and removal of religious references from the Constitution.

According to Atheist Ireland, Mr Ryan, who as Communications Minister refused to lift a ban on advertising the sale of Holy Communion gifts, and his Green Party supporters signed a statement based on the so-called ‘Dublin Declaration’.”

The article then went on to quote directly from the Dublin Declaration on Secularism, implying that the Green Party supported this Declaration, while ignoring three things:

  • That the Irish Catholic article itself accurately quoted from the Atheist Ireland website that the Secular Statement was ‘based on’ the Dublin Declaration. If it was identical to the Dublin Declaration, we would simply have said that the Green Party supported the Dublin Declaration.
  • That David Quinn had three days previously sought clarification on whether the Secular Statement made this claim, and that he had been informed that it did not, and that he had been informed of the wording of the relevant clause in the Secular Statement, which is ‘Citizens in Ireland should have the option of a secular education for their children’.
  • That any legitimate confusion about the report on the Atheist Ireland website could have been cleared up by simply contacting us for a comment.

As an aside, and as a further example of inaccurate reporting, even the Dublin Declaration on Secularism does not make the claims that the newspaper attributes to it. The Irish Catholic says that:

“The document demands that parents should have no right to send their children to a school run in accordance with their religious values. It insists that “religions should have no special financial consideration in public life, such as tax-free status for religious activities, or grants to promote religion or run faith schools”.

But even the Dublin Declaration does not demand that parents should have no right to send their children to a school run in accordance with their religious values. Atheist Ireland fully supports the right of parents to send their children to a school run in accordance with their religious values. We argue only that the State should provide secular education, and should not financially support faith schools, and that religions should privately fund the evangelisation of their religious values.

5. Atheist Ireland clarification on the first article

On 19 May, David Quinn linked to the article on Twitter, saying:

Michael Kelly, the so-called Irish Catholic editor, then emailed Atheist Ireland to say:

“We’ve had correspondence from Green Party candidate Eamon Ryan claiming that Atheist Ireland is not correctly reflecting his view on faith-based schools. He also informs me that he is asking AI to change the website “to make sure they correctly reflect my opinion”. Have you had any correspondence from Mr Ryan on the issue and where does AI stand in relation to the correction he’s asking for?”

Atheist Ireland responded to the Irish Catholic as follows:

“I have now checked, and neither I nor our Dublin chairperson has had any correspondence from Eamon Ryan on this. I don’t know if he has contacted anyone else in Atheist Ireland. I have rang him and left a message on his answer machine asking him to contact me to find out what the situation is.

We have published on our website the text of and background to our Secular Statement.  

Our most recent update on responses from candidates on our website refers to the Green Party as follows: Mark Dearey issued the following statement of support and has signed the Secular Statement on behalf of the Green Party: “I am happy to have concluded a detailed exploration of the issues around the Secular Statement issued by the Cavan Monaghan Branch of Atheist Ireland. I found their approach to be respectful of all faiths and none, and the dialogue was sufficiently flexible to allow both sides learn from each other and to find common ground on the role of politics vis a vis matters of religious belief. The document triggered a discussion within the Green Party about the duty of politics to ensure that political and constitutional frameworks support all people to hold whatever views they wish with regard to faith and religious practice. It’s been a helpful process and although I am the one signing the statement, Eamon Ryan in Dublin and Grace O’Sullivan in Ireland South are both in agreement”.

Here is the original story of the Green party signing the Secular Statement, as reported in the Northern Standard.”

6. The second article – ‘Eamon Ryan backs away from attack on Catholic education’

Later that day, the Irish Catholic newspaper published another article titled ‘Eamon Ryan backs away from attack on Catholic education.’ It began:  

“Green Party candidate Eamon Ryan has backed away from controversial remarks attributed to him calling for an end to State funding for Catholic schools. According to campaign group Atheist Ireland Mr Ryan, who is running in the European elections in Dublin, is supporting a so-called secular statement which also calls for an end to charitable status for religious bodies and removal of religious references from the Constitution.

According to the group, Mr Ryan, who as Communications Minister refused to lift a ban on advertising the sale of Holy Communion gifts, and his Green Party supporters signed a statement based on the so-called ‘Dublin Declaration’. However, Mr Ryan told The Irish Catholic that the views attributed to him by Atheist Ireland do not, in fact, reflect his opinions on Catholic education.”

This article repeated the same false allegation that Atheist Ireland was claiming that the Green Party supported an end to State funding for Catholic schools. Despite partially quoting from Atheist Ireland’s clarification email, the article simply ignored the part of our email that clarified that this allegation was not true.

7. Atheist Ireland clarification on the second article

Atheist Ireland then sent the following email to the Irish Catholic.

“Seriously? What’s the point in contacting me to clarify something if you are going to ignore my clarification about the difference between the Dublin Declaration and the Secular Statement, selectively quote me to omit an important part of my response, then republish the same untrue statements about both Atheist Ireland and Eamon Ryan? 

You must have known that the statements are untrue at the time of your revised article, given that the article includes a partial quote from me, that comes from an email that also included links to three articles showing what the Green party has signed up to supporting. Can you please correct that article, and apologise for misrepresenting us?”

After waiting some hours for a response from the Irish Catholic, we then published an article on our website titled ‘The Irish Catholic newspaper is misrepresenting Eamon Ryan, the Green Party and Atheist Ireland,’ and we updated previous articles to remove any possibility of our report being misinterpreted by people who did not see or understand the words ‘based on’. David Quinn responded to this article on Twitter by saying:

Later that evening, David tweeted:

And Michael Nugent replied:

8. The emailed apology from the Irish Catholic newspaper

On the morning of 20 May, Michael Kelly, the editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper, emailed Atheist Ireland:

“My apologies, I neglected to read the link you posted assuming it was the same as was currently on the site. I’m happy to have the story updated to take account of what Eamon Ryan actually signed. However, it’s important to note that this ‘secular statement’ only appeared on the website after The IC story had been written and posted. Before that point, the statement that was there and linked to the Green Party was the more far-reaching one that was quoted in the story.”

Atheist Ireland replied as follows:

“The story of the Green Party signing the Secular Statement was online before. I’m on my way to a meeting. I’ll try to ring you on the way or else at lunchtime.”

Michael Kelly replied as follows:

“The text of the secular statement appeared on the AI website in the afternoon of May 19. Before that, all that was there was the Dublin Declaration giving the distinct impression that they were one and the same thing.”

And Atheist Ireland replied as follows:

“You have created a controversy through poor research, and escalated it by effectively ignoring the clarification you got immediately on contacting me, and that you could have got before the first article. Please don’t drag this out any longer than needed.”

So at this stage, the Irish Catholic was admitting that, prior to its second article, it had requested clarification from Atheist Ireland, got that clarification, and had not read that clarification. And in fairness, it had apologised for this failure in basic journalistic standards. We had expected that it would also convey this information to its readers.

However, the newspaper was still trying to justify the original mistake in its first article, by saying that describing a document as ‘based on’ another document ‘gave the distinct impression’ that both documents were ‘one and the same thing.’ While we accept that David Quinn made that mistake in good faith when he first read the report, he had sought and received clarification three days before the Irish Catholic published its first article.

9. The third article – ‘Eamon Ryan clarifies support for Catholic schools’

Later yesterday morning, instead of conveying its apology for its mistake to its readers, the Irish Catholic published a third article, titled ‘Eamon Ryan clarifies support for Catholic schools.’ It began:

“Green Party candidate Eamon Ryan has confirmed that he does support State funding for Catholic schools after confusion arose about his links with an Atheist Ireland campaign against faith-based schools.

Originally, the website of the campaigning group claimed that Green Party candidates, including Mr Ryan, supported a so-called secular statement circulated by the group. The website linked to a declaration agreed by atheist campaigners which, among other things, also calls for an end to charitable status for religious bodies and the removal of religious references from the Constitution.

However, Atheist Ireland has now admitted that neither Mr Ryan nor his party colleagues signed that declaration, instead opting for a watered-down version. After The Irish Catholic reported the initial controversy, Atheist Ireland published the revised statement.”

This article ignored the mistake that the Irish Catholic had already apologised for, and made further misleading allegations about Atheist Ireland. It claimed that ‘Atheist Ireland has now admitted that neither Mr Ryan nor his party colleagues signed that declaration’, despite the fact that Atheist Ireland had never claimed that in the first place. The article again blurred the distinction, that the newspaper was by now perfectly well aware of, between the Dublin Declaration and the Secular Statement.

The article also portrayed the overall story as happening ‘after confusion arose,’ as if the ‘confusion’ was a passive natural occurrence, rather than something that the newspaper had maintained and escalated after any initial legitimate confusion had been clarified. We accept that David Quinn made his initial mistake in good faith, but we are very disappointed with how the so-called Irish Catholic newspaper has responded since.

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1 Comment

  1. When these Catholics have to constantly lie to themselves just to get themselves through the day (especially Sundays), it’s no surprise that they cannot bring themselves to be honest with the general public, especially atheists who threaten their entire Nigerian Email-style fraud.

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