Monday 17 December 2018

The financial battle behind referendum

Millions of euros are being raised to finance campaigns around the abortion vote, writes Maeve Sheehan

CONCERN: Ruth Coppinger is worried the pro-repeal campaign will be outspent
CONCERN: Ruth Coppinger is worried the pro-repeal campaign will be outspent
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Two of the biggest anti-abortion groups raised a total of almost €3m in public donations in a two-year period, demonstrating the earning power of a group that was last week said to be out-fundraising their referendum opponents.

Family & Life raised close to €2m in donations in the two years to 2016, while the Pro Life Campaign generated donations of almost €900,000 between 2014 and 2015, according to company accounts.

Accounts for a third company, The Life Institute - affiliated with the Save the 8th campaign - was funded by a long-term, interest-free loan of €231,000 from an un-named donor, also in 2016.

Given we are now in 2018, the money captured in these company accounts may have long been spent. The records nevertheless provide a snapshot of the financial health of the anti-repeal movement.

If anything, their financial health may have improved. Most have stepped up fund-raising activities since the Government announced a referendum on the repeal of the State's constitutional ban on abortion.

There are still weeks to go before the campaign formally begins, but groups campaigning against repeal have launched national billboard campaigns, dispatched volunteer to canvass on the ground and are believed to have invested heavily in social media.

So much so that Ruth Coppinger, the Solidarity TD, who is campaigning in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment, said last week that the pro-repeal side is "worried" they will be outspent by their anti-repeal opponents.

Concerns have been raised on both sides about foreign funding being used to influence the outcome of the referendum, through anonymously-funded, targeted advertising on social media platforms like Facebook, and over disputed donations from US billionaire George Soros to several pro-choice groups.

A number of anti-repeal groups enter the campaign from a position of considerable financial power. Family & Life, for instance, has raised an average of €1m a year in donations between 2012 and 2016 - or €5m in five years.

It spent most of the funds on "projects and services" - including a pregnancy advice service - but it started into the 2017 financial year with €397,716 in revenues.

Its fund-raising tactics are dramatic and vigorous, to say the least. Four years ago, the now Minister for Health Jim Daly criticised the group for targeting "primarily vulnerable, elderly people" for money. It raised more than €40,000 earlier this year to buy two billboard trucks to bring its "pro-life" message to the country, claiming outdoor advertising companies refuse to take posters from either side of the campaign.

Family & Life is registered with the ethics watchdog, Sipo, as must all organisations that receive more than €100 in donations for a political campaign. They are not required to declare the source of their funding or how much they spend on their campaigns.

One of its key people, Peter Scully, who was also a founder of Youth Defence along with members of the Mac Mathuna family, who are now behind the other major anti-abortion group, Life Institute and Save the 8th.

Family & Life announced in December that it is uniting with The Life Institute and Youth Defence to organise a more efficient national door- to-door canvass.

The Life Institute, owned by another Youth Defence founder, Niamh Ui Bhriain and her brother Donal Mac Mathuna, is financed by an "interest-free long-term loan" from an unnamed donor of €231,110 and had assets of €225,000, according to accounts for 2016.

The Life Institute has also been seeking donations online to campaign against repeal. Niamh Ui Bhriain said it is registered with Sipo "and all funds raised for the referendum are deposited in a separate bank account and will be fully accounted for to Sipo."

"We only raise referendum funds according to Sipo rules," the statement said.

Save the 8th, which runs the actual campaign, is owned by Ide Nic Mhathuna. A spokesperson said the Save the 8th hopes to raise around €300,000 for the campaign against repeal.

Operating from the same office on Gardiner Street is Youth Defence, prominent in past campaigns because of its controversial tactics, it is less so now, although its website describes it as the largest pro- life organisation in the country. It is also seeking online donations ranging from €50 up to €700 to sponsor a "highly visible pro-life billboard" .

The Pro-Life Campaign, which is behind the Love Both social media campaign, is a separate entity. It describes itself as a "non-denominational human rights" organisation.

V I E Company, which owns it, shows that it raised €839,486 in 2013, €347,683 in 2014 and €550,138 in 2015. Its accounts for 2016 do not disclose any donations, only assets of €57,841.

Its spokespeople include Cora Sherlock and Professor William Binchy. Its Love Both project is headed by Katie Ascough, the UCD student who was impeached as president of the Students Union because she followed "legal advice" in removing abortion information from a student newspaper.

Lolek, the company behind the Iona Institute - which last month launched its billboard campaign against the referendum - received donations of €273,842 in 2016, according to its accounts, and was left with a surplus of €54,657. Its accounts stated all of its donations are raised in Ireland.

Anti-repeal groups have argued they struggle against media and political bias.

Cora Sherlock of the Pro- Life Campaign said: "We do not have a 'war chest' so the amounts we raise will dictate the scope of our efforts. We're confident nonetheless that we'll be in a position to run the kind of campaign needed to retain the Eighth Amendment. We always factored it in that our opponents would have more resources at their disposal giving the huge media backing they receive and the support they get from the political establishment."

As for V I E, she said whatever funds raised in previous years have not been set aside for the referendum campaign.

On the pro-repeal side, the National Women's Council, the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth and the Abortion Rights Campaign, plan to join forces for one national campaign. The Coalition has not filed any accounts yet. The National Women's Council had an annual budget of €626,428 in 2016. Orla O'Connor, its director, has insisted none of its funds will be used on the referendum and it will not use public funds in its campaign but will be fundraising separately within its membership.

The only accounts filed by Abortion Rights Campaign recorded donations of €123,000 up to March 2017 and a surplus of €121,042. The Abortion Rights Campaign has returned a €25,000 donation from the Soros foundation in 2016, after it was disallowed by Sipo. The Irish Family Planning Association is still in talks with Sipo over the money it received from Soros, while Amnesty International is going to the High Court to challenge Sipo's claim a €137,000 donation was unlawful.

Craig Dwyer of the Transparent Referendum Initiative said: "The law as it currently stands in Ireland prevents foreign donations to official campaigns. Spending on social media advertising however - including from overseas - goes unregulated."

Sunday Independent

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