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Amnesty boss says watchdog's grant decision could prove 'catastrophic'

The organisation is seeking legal advice about an ongoing dispute over a €137,000 grant it received.

Colm O'Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland
Colm O'Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland
Image: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie

THE HEAD OF Amnesty International’s Irish branch has warned that its continuing row with public spending watchdog Sipo over a grant ruling could have serious implications for smaller charities and civic society groups.

Colm O’Gorman has been involved in an ongoing public row with the Standards in Public Office (Sipo) Commission over a grant of €137,000 it received from the George Soros-backed Open Societies Foundation (OSF).

The billionaire investor is a major backer of liberal causes around the world. His foundation part-funded a campaign by Amnesty International Ireland (AII) that focused on reproductive rights and repealing the Eighth Amendment.

O’Gorman, Amnesty’s Executive Director, said Sipo first told him there would be no problem with accepting the money, only for a different senior official at the spending watchdog to raise concerns about it over a year later.

Correspondence between Amnesty and the watchdog, seen by TheJournal.ie, sets out the timeline of the argument.

In November of last year, Sherry Perreault, Sipo’s Head of Ethics and Lobbying Regulation, wrote to AII asking it to return the grant, which it described as “a prohibited donation”, as it contravened the Electoral Act 1997.

Under that legislation, organisations which receive a donation of more than €100 for “political purposes” must register as a third party.

nov1 Section of Sipo's letter to Amnesty, November 2017

nov 2 Section of Sipo's letter to Amnesty, November 2017

In October 2016, Perreault’s colleague Derek Charles had written to Amnesty saying that, based on the documents provided by Amnesty about the grant, the organisation didn’t have to register with the Commission as a third party.

oct Section of Sipo's letter to Amnesty, October 2016

The previous August, Sipo wrote to AII seeking clarification about the grant, following an article in the Irish Independent.

In its response, Amnesty set out what the money would be used for – to partially fund its My Body My Rights campaign, which ran in 2016 and 2017 and focused on reproductive rights and repealing the Eighth Amendment (the section of the Constitution that gives equal rights to the mother and the unborn).

In a press release issued on 13 December 2017, the watchdog said it “recently received new information” that indicated the donation was used for “political purposes”. The Commission said it “sought and received written confirmation from the donor that the funding was for explicitly political purposes”.

OSF has refuted this claim. Two days after the press release was circulated, its acting president Patrick Gaspard wrote to Sipo to say that the organisation “has not confirmed to [Sipo] that either of the foregoing grants was for political purposes, and any assertion that we have done so is a mischaracterisation of our communications with you”.

At the time, OFS said it was concerned that the watchdog may have been referring to internal documents that were stolen from its servers and illegally published on the DC Leaks website in 2016.

In the leaked document, the OSF said it was funding Amnesty, the Irish Family Planning Association and the Abortion Rights Campaign (which later gave back its €23,000 grant) “to work collectively on a campaign to repeal Ireland’s constitutional amendment granting equal rights to an implanted embryo as the pregnant woman”.

“With one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, a win there could impact other strongly Catholic countries in Europe, such as Poland, and provide much needed proof that change is possible, even in highly conservative places,” the document stated.

Seeking legal advice 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, O’Gorman said he has “no idea” why Sipo reversed its decision about the OSF grant, or why it did so just one month before the My Body My Rights campaign was to conclude.

He stated that the watchdog’s call for Amnesty to return the grant is “unreasonable” and “unjust”.

Amnesty is now seeking legal advice about the situation, which O’Gorman says sets a dangerous precedent for how the Electoral Act is implemented.

“It’s absolutely clear to us that the application of the Electoral Act in this way violates international human rights law and certainly violates civil society freedoms.

“On that basis we believe that, as a human rights organisation, we have a responsibility to challenge that law by all appropriate means and we have said we cannot simply comply with this instruction from Sipo.

That doesn’t mean that we believe we’re above the law, we don’t by any stretch of the imagination believe that. But it does mean that we have a responsibility to challenge it and, in order to do that, we have sought and continue to get legal advice, and we will challenge both this decision and, indeed, the application of the law in this way by appropriate means.

O’Gorman said Amnesty receives most of its funding from its 24,000 members and donors, rather than grants such as the one it received from OSF, but that many smaller groups rely on grants to stay afloat.

grant Section of letter from OSF to Amnesty discussing the grant, December 2015

He said if Sipo decides to block funding or access to funding for organisations who are seeking to change government policy or to secure a change in the law or the Constitution, that could ”cripple” civic society groups – something he described as “really worrying”.

“If that were to be applied to organisations in Ireland, it would pretty much shut down the majority of civil society organisations that work for human rights, that work for equality, that work for environmental rights, social justice, anything that seeks to inform or challenge or influence decisions that are made in the Oireachtas or decisions that are made by government or even by a local council.

It would be catastrophic. And that’s why we have a responsibility to challenge it.

O’Gorman said such a scenario would also be “at odds” with the government’s foreign policy as Irish Aid helps fund civil society organisations in other countries who work on human rights and equality issues.

He said the current legislation is “incredibly broad” and could mean, for example, that a local group of parents campaigning to get a new playground or speed bumps installed in a housing estate may have to register as a third party if they get a donation of more than €100 in any 12-month period.

O’Gorman added that Sipo itself previously flagged concerns about the legislation.

‘Harass and nuisance organisations’ 

O’Gorman said, as it stands, people can make complaints to Sipo about organisations that have received grants because they disagree with the work they’re doing or may have “a gripe with the organisation”.

He noted that, over the course of a year, the watchdog and Amnesty received over 1,400 emails related to a petition on Citizen Go, a conservative website, which called for Amnesty to return the money.

“This Act can be used, if the organisation is transparent about its funding sources, to harass and nuisance those organisations and that’s unacceptable.”

O’Gorman said that, when questioned by Sipo about the OSF grant in 2016, Amnesty “detailed the source of the grant, the amount, the timeframe, and we gave them chapter and verse of the very detailed political objectives and activities that the grant would be used to fund, and they told us then that we weren’t required to register as a third party”.

amnesty Section of Amnesty letter to Sipo, September 2016

He added that Amnesty is not aware of any new information that has come to light which could have influenced Sipo’s decision. He said the implication that Amnesty misled or lied to Sipo is untrue and described this suggestion as “very, very serious”.

When asked about the situation, Perreault, Sipo’s Head of Ethics and Lobbying Regulation, told TheJournal.ie she “won’t comment on individual compliance matters”.

She noted that the Commission has in the past “expressed the view that the third party provisions of the Act would benefit from some amendments, for example to define a third party as one which incurs expenditure for political purposes over a defined threshold (the Commission previously suggested €5,000)”.

In other words, the Commission is of the view that registration should be required based on the third party’s spending for political purposes, rather than the intent of a donor.

“However, the Commission has never disputed the requirement for third parties to register. Moreover, the Commission has never expressed any reservation or recommended any change to the prohibition on political donations from foreign individuals and entities,” Perreault said.

She said Sipo’s decisions “are made collectively” and that the press release issued on 13 December “was approved by the Commission”.

A spokesperson for OSF told us Sipo has to date not responded to the letter in which its acting president claims there was a “mischaracterisation” of its communications with the Commission.

Our position remains that the grant in question was not made for “political purposes” as defined by the Electoral Law (a position which Sipo previously agreed with) but to support – at Amnesty’s request – the continuation of Amnesty’s My Body My Rights Ireland campaign.

“At the time this grant was made there was no referendum campaign under way, nor any government commitment to hold a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment,” the spokesperson added.

O’Gorman said Amnesty intends to temporarily register as a third party in the run-up to the referendum on the Eighth Amendment this summer, as it will be actively campaigning for the amendment to be repealed. The organisation did the same thing while campaigning for a Yes vote in the Marriage Equality Referendum in 2015.

‘Shutting down civil society’

O’Gorman said he doesn’t “for one moment believe that the Oireachtas in 2011, when it enacted these amendments [to the Act], intended to shut down civil society”.

“We don’t believe that the Irish State is so hostile to civil society participation, to the right of ordinary people in this county to influence how the government legislates or to influence how policies are applied … that they would enact laws that sought to shut down civil society.”

However, as things currently stand, he believes the country could end up going down this route.

“We’ve no desire in cocking our noses at the law … but if the law itself can violate human rights and if the law, or a decision made in line with the provision of the law, violates human rights then that’s something that we have to challenge by appropriate means, including challenging the law,” he stated.

Read: Open Society says Sipo may have relied on stolen documents to make Amnesty donation decision

Read: Abortion Rights Campaign gives back €23,000 US donation

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