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Varadkar 'has no issue' with Harris backing Amnesty launch


Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Frank McGrath

Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Frank McGrath

Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Frank McGrath

The Taoiseach has defended Health Minister Simon Harris for endorsing a Yes vote campaign organised by a group refusing to obey an order by a State watchdog to repay a prohibited donation.

Leo Varadkar said the minister's support for the Amnesty International campaign is appropriate because it is the Government which is seeking to legislate for abortion.

Mr Harris had come under fire for endorsing the campaign because Amnesty is seeking to quash a Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) ruling that it received an illegal foreign donation.

Sipo ordered Amnesty to repay a €137,000 donation from a Swiss philanthropic organisation last year - political donations by foreign individuals and groups are banned under the Electoral Act.

Mr Varadkar said he had no issue with Mr Harris endorsing the campaign, despite outstanding questions about the prohibited donation by Open Society Foundations (OSF), an organisation founded by the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros.

"It is absolutely appropriate for the minister to be involved in such a campaign," Mr Varadkar told the Dáil yesterday.

"It is the Government and the Oireachtas that is proposing to change the Constitution. The normal course of events is for ministers to campaign in favour of the changes they are proposing."

Amnesty has challenged the order to repay the donation. It has brought a judicial review against Sipo, Ireland and the Attorney General as it seeks to have the order quashed. It says the donation is linked to a campaign launched in 2015 focused on securing human rights compliant abortion laws here.

It says this campaign is separate to its campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath criticised Mr Harris for attending the launch of Amnesty's Yes campaign, saying he "flouted" Cabinet duties.

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"It is totally inappropriate that he attended that launch because his duty is to defend the Constitution that is in place until it is changed by the people or otherwise," said Mr McGrath. "If a member of this house does wrong, he or she must be held accountable, and rightly so."

Mr Varadkar's support for Mr Harris came as he recognised the personal nature of the ongoing abortion debate by paying tribute to the late TD Peter Mathews yesterday. The former Dublin South TD died last year after a battle with cancer.

He had been expelled from Fine Gael in 2013 after voting against the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, something the Taoiseach regrets.

"I regretted that he had to leave Fine Gael on what was very much an issue of personal conscience for him and that experience convinced me we should not impose the whip on such issues again," he said.

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