Sunday 20 October 2019

Watchdog 'was not told Amnesty donation was for political purposes'

The Open Society Foundation (OSF) was originally set up by billionaire George Soros
The Open Society Foundation (OSF) was originally set up by billionaire George Soros
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

The US-based foundation that gave €137,000 to Amnesty International for its campaign to change Ireland's abortion laws has insisted it never told the State's political watchdog the cash was for political purposes.

The Open Society Foundation (OSF) - originally set up by billionaire George Soros - has written to the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) asking for any public statements to the contrary to be corrected.

The issue of donations to organisations on either side of the abortion debate is sensitive ahead of a planned referendum on the divisive issue next year.

Sipo has instructed Amnesty International Ireland to return the donation, amid allegations it breached Ireland's laws on foreign political donations.

Amnesty is challenging this, claiming the law is flawed and arguing that Sipo previously told it that it didn't have to register as a 'third party' when details of the OSF donation first emerged in 2016.

Last week Sipo released a statement saying that since 2016 it had received new information that indicated the donations received by a number of Irish organisations from a foreign donor were indeed for political purposes.

It said it had received confirmation from the donor that this was the intention.

"As it is the intent of the donor that determines whether a donation is a political donation" the funding "very clearly fell" within the law's prohibitions, Sipo said.

The OSF has now insisted that it "at no time" told Sipo that the €137,000 grant from its women's rights programme to Amnesty was for political purposes.

It said it has written to Sipo asking for any public statements to the contrary to be "corrected".

The OSF said the grant in question was to fund the continuation of Amnesty's 'My Body My Rights' campaign, "which seeks to mobilise support for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment" which, the foundation argues, "effectively bans all forms of abortion in Ireland in violation of women's and girls' human rights". The statement raised concern that Sipo's interpretation of the grant being for political purposes may be based on documents that emerged as a result of hackers - allegedly backed by the Russian government - breaking into the OSF's computer files in 2016.

The OSF said the documents were not an indication of its intent as a donor, but rather part of an "ongoing discussion on how best to strengthen women's reproductive rights across Europe". The foundation said it had been Amnesty that first approached the OSF as part of a general call for expressions of interest for a grant that was not specific to abortion. The OSF also said that at the time the grant was approved, there was no Government commitment to hold a referendum.

The OSF said that the legal scope of the grant to Amnesty is determined by the grant agreement, not any other document.

Its statement added that the OSF "trusts that Sipo will rely only on this document to determine whether the terms of this grant comply with Irish law".

Sipo last night had "no comment" on the OSF statement.

Irish Independent

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