The Iona Institute has made a significant U-turn by finally registering as a third party with the Standards in Public Office Commission, just seven weeks after they made a declaration to the Commission that they did not consider that they had to register, and less than a week after Atheist Ireland challenged that decision in a letter to the Commission.
The Standards Commission has a supervisory role under the Ethics and Electoral Acts. A third party is a person or group, other than a political party of election candidate, that has accepted a donation for political purposes exceeding €100.
Iona’s U-turn means that one of two scenarios must have happened:
Scenario One: Coincidence
Between August 2006 and 4 March 2015, the Iona Institute never received any donations for political purposes exceeding €100. They then received their first ever such donation sometime between then and 23 April 2015, which by coincidence was just after Atheist Ireland had contacted the Commission about them.
Scenario Two: Incompetence
Between August 2006 and 4 March 2015, the Iona Institute did in fact receive such donations for political purposes. They did not understand their obligations under the law, even when the Commission wrote to explain them, and they only realised their mistake on 23 April 2015, just after Atheist Ireland had contacted the Commission about them.
Here is the timescale involved in the Iona Institute’s U-turn:
On 25 January 2015, Atheist Ireland contacted the Standards Commission on our own initiative, and we received a registration form and explanatory notes for third parties. On 4 February we registered with the Commission, and the Commission told us that it would update its register of third parties as soon as possible.
On 20 February, The Standards Commission wrote to the Iona Institute (and to other organisations known to the Commission) and asked them to consider whether or not they should register as a third party with the Commission, and to confirm whether or not they had received a donation, given for political purposes, in excess of €100.
On 4 March, the Iona Institute responded to the Commission, and confirmed that they had not received any donations for political purposes that exceeded €100, and therefore they did not consider that any requirement to register as a third party with the Standards Commission arose.
On 17 April, Atheist Ireland wrote to the Standards Commission asking why three organisations were not registered with them (the Catholic Church, the Humanist Association of Ireland, and the Iona Institute). We gave the Commission examples of these organisations carrying out activities that are captured by the definition of political purposes.
On 20 April, the Commission responded to Atheist Ireland. They told us that, in the absence of concrete evidence that a group has accepted a donation, given for political purposes, in excess of €100, it is the Commission’s practice to accept a group’s declaration that it has considered it should register as a third party and the group’s confirmation that it has not accepted such a donation. The Commission added that, should any person have actual evidence (not hearsay) that a group has made a false declaration to the Commission then the Commission would be grateful to receive such evidence.
On 23 April, the Iona Institute registered with the Commission, and it now appears on the register of third parties. This means that the Iona Institute has now confirmed that it has accepted a donation, given for political purposes, in excess of €100, having told the Commission the opposite just seven weeks ago.
Limits on Donations
If it is the case that the Iona Institute did not understand their obligations under the law, even when the Commission wrote to explain them, they might also want to familiarise themselves with some of the other limitations on donations that they can lawfully receive for political purposes.
Donations include money, property or goods, free use of property or goods, free supply of services, discounts on usual commercial prices, profits from political fundraisers, or notional donations also known as donations in kind.
They cannot accept an anonymous donation for political purposes exceeding €100, or a cash donation for political purposes exceeding €200.
They cannot accept a donation, or donations from the same donor, for political purposes, in any calendar year exceeding an aggregate value of €2,500.
They cannot accept a donation for political purposes of whatever value, from an individual (other than an Irish citizen) who resides outside the island of Ireland.
They cannot accept a donation for political purposes from a body corporate or unincorporated body of persons which does not keep an office in the island of Ireland from which one or more of its principal activities is directed.
They cannot accept a donation for political purposes exceeding €200 in any calendar year from a corporate donor, unless the corporate donor is registered in the register of Corporate Donors maintained by the Standards Commission and other criteria are met.