Wednesday 21 March 2018

GLEN gets stuck in financial mire

The gay rights group is at the centre of controversy that has resulted in the resignation of co-founder Kieran Rose

Huge success: The 2015 campaign for marriage equality was one of the longest that GLEN was involved with, and inset, Kieran Rose. Photo: Niall Carson
Huge success: The 2015 campaign for marriage equality was one of the longest that GLEN was involved with, and inset, Kieran Rose. Photo: Niall Carson
Kieran Rose Picture: Tommy Clancy
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Over three decades it has been one of the most successful campaign groups in the country.

Using subtle and effective lobbying tactics, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen) helped to spearhead the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993.

Originally set up in 1988, it campaigned against all types of discrimination against gay and lesbian people, and reached the pinnacle of its success when it contributed to the successful passing of the same sex marriage referendum.

But this week, Glen has found itself under a financial cloud after revelations about its use of funds.

Tonie Walsh, a veteran gay rights campaigner, said he was "flabbergasted" by the reports.

The Charities Regulator is investigating allegations about financial mismanagement at GLEN.

Questions were raised about the charity's finances by Glen's executive director Áine Duggan, who brought her concerns to the board several months ago. She has now stepped down from her role.

Duggan, a UCD graduate, only arrived at Glen in October. She had two decades of experience in the voluntary sector under her belt, having worked in the United States as chief executive of Re: Gender, a group that campaigns for gender equality. For justifiable reasons, staff at Glen could look back with pride at the passing of same sex marriage referendum.

Together with others, they had been part of a well-managed, slick campaign that had turned Ireland into a poster boy for the global gay rights movement.

But when Duggan looked into Glen's finances she did not like what she saw, and by November she was expressing her grave concerns to the board. This led her to made a voluntary disclosure to the Charities Regulator.

The new boss of Glen became concerned when she discovered that some transactions of over €60,000, were not recorded in management accounts seen by the board.

She told RTÉ's Morning Ireland this week how she also became concerned about the use of company credit cards.

"People got into the habit of doing things without necessarily thinking about it, and that was all behaviour that needed to be corrected," she said.

Another issue of concern was the use of GLEN's printing facilities in a failed Seanad election campaign by the former co-chairman Kieran Rose.

The €11,500 cost of this printing has since been reimbursed.

Rose has for long been an important and highly respected figure in the gay rights movement, and helped to set up Glen in the 1980s.

He stepped down from his role as GLEN co-chairman last December and last week resigned from the organisation's board as well, saying he regretted that the arrangement over his Seanad campaign "has contributed to recent controversy".

"I regret that this issue has occurred and is causing a distraction from the important work of GLEN and the other issues that are concerning it at present," he said.

Áine Duggan also expressed concern that some transactions appeared in a "side account", rather than in the management accounts seen by the board.

UCD Professor Niamh Brennan, an authority on corporate governance, this week expressed surprise at the way the organisation was run.

"It is astonishing that sizeable sums of money were not being put through the main books and records. That is basic inappropriate financial management," she tells Review.

"At the moment there is no evidence that money was misappropriated," adds Prof Brennan. "If you have transactions going back 10 years that were accounted for outside the normal books and records, you would not necessarily know what happened to that money."

Brennan says it was a real problem if there were things going on in the organisation that non-executive directors did not know about.

"It is pretty bad funding a Seanad campaign using the money of the charity - even when the candidate did pay back the money," she adds.

The charity has been the recipient of hundreds of thousands of euro in State and philanthropic funding. The latest accounts of Glen are for 2015, the year of the Marriage Equality referendum. Income that year included more than €112,000 from the HSE, including €25,000 for LGBT mental health.

Atlantic Philanthropies, the charity run by billionaire Chuck Feeney, handed over €150,000. In 2015, its total income from all sources came to €685,390. However, it also had a deficit of almost €92,000.

"Regardless of the source of the funding a company has a duty to account for its resources," says Brennan.

She says the consequences for Glen as a result of the financial mismanagement are seismic.

"They will have auditors, accountants, the HSE, and the charity regulator crawling all over it, which will cost a fortune - and they already have deficits. It could have the knock-on consequence of drying up its funding."

GLEN was born in a much more repressive era in the late 1980s when homosexual acts were still illegal in Ireland.

In 1988, the year of its foundation, the European Court had ruled that the law criminalising same-sex activities was contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Tonie Walsh, who is curator of the Irish Queer Archive, says: "Glen was formed with immediate aim of repealing anti-gay laws.

"In its early days, it was hugely successful and brought together some of the brightest talents. It upped the ante in terms of the professionalism it displayed and brought gay activism to a level that had never been seen before in Ireland."

The group was methodical in its strategy in winning over politicians to its cause.

It built alliances with other groups in the equality arena. Rather than browbeating the public and politicians, it sought to bring the gay rights agenda into the mainstream as a simple issue of fairness.

As one of the activists Suzy Byrne put it in an interview in Q-Life magazine: "There were no drag queens chaining themselves to the gates of Leinster House. Lesbians and gay men were presented as ordinary members of Irish society who didn't have two heads, and who deserved to be treated like everyone else."

A similar strategy was adopted in marriage equality referendum, when a deliberate attempt was made to identify the cause as a concern for ordinary parents and families.

But after the success of the marriage equality referendum, Tonie Walsh questions whether GLEN still has a role in the gay rights movement.

"Some of its political objectives have been superseded by more specialist groups. I imagine that Glen has been coming to the end of its term, and I struggle to see what its purpose is."

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