Special Report - Far right in Ireland: ‘Dark money’ and the price of democracy

Many associate the murky world of ‘dark money’ with the US political system, but its influence has reached far closer to home, including European elections and Ireland’s anti-abortion movement, says Joyce Fegan

America’s religious right has poured at least $50m into Europe over the last 10 years, for the sake of political influence — and some of this money has reached Ireland.

In a recent and far-reaching investigation by Open-Democracy, it was found that so-called ‘dark money’ totalling $50m had been spent by ultra-conservative groups trying to bring European politics to the far right.

‘Dark money’ refers to political spending used to influence a voter, where the donor is not disclosed and the source of the money is unknown.

“American conservatives have increasingly been working with groups throughout Europe,” Mary Fitzgerald, editor-in-chief of openDemocracy told the Irish Examiner.

“Our work has found substantial evidence of unaccountable ‘dark money’ flowing across the Atlantic.”

While far-right movements vary from country to country, commonalities include being strongly opposed to migration, a call for greater national sovereignty, and a pushback against a range of rights, from women’s reproductive control to LGBTQI rights.

The overarching goal of the recent push is to get more seats in the European Parliament, so as to exert far-right ideological and policy control.

When it comes to ultra-conservative groups exerting influence over Ireland, there are several links.

Madrid-based campaign group CitizenGo, which is supported by American and Russian ultra-conservatives, has worked across Europe to drive voters towards far-right parties in the recent European Parliament elections. CitizenGo was involved in campaigning against the repeal of the referendum on the Eighth Amendment in Ireland last year.

CitizenGo joined the Save the 8th campaign in calling on Ireland and people with friends in Ireland to “say no to abortion”.

Known for their online petitions against same-sex marriage and sex education, and for driving buses across cities with slogans against “feminazis”, CitizenGo ran a large online petition to retain the Eighth Amendment last year.

CitizenGo amassed 55,561 signatures in an attempt to influence Irish voters’ decision in the referendum. They also ran a social media campaign with three-minute long videos calling for a No vote.

In openDemocracy’s recent investigation into ‘dark money’ and its role in European politics, new evidence was found of “extraordinary co-ordination” between this group and far-right parties across Europe — from Spain to Italy, Germany, and Hungary.

While no link between CitizenGo and an Irish political party has been found, it supported Spain’s far-right party Vox in the country’s recent elections, with Vox capturing 10% of the vote. Making its political breakthrough, the party won 24 seats out of the 350-seat Spanish congress.

Returning to Ireland, CitizenGo is still involved here even after the repealing of the Eighth Amendment.

Its latest Irish-focused online petition relates to doctors having “conscientious objection” to providing abortion services care here.

The CitizenGo ‘Protect the Conscience of Medical Professionals’ petition has gathered almost 3,000 signatures. Part of the petition is also seeking the protection of “Catholic hospitals” from shutting down or “forcing them to lose their religious character”.

The petition describes the Government’s approach to the provision of termination of pregnancy services as “authoritarian”.

CitizenGo states that it is “wholly financed through small online donations made by thousands of citizens throughout the world”. It also says its 10m members use these online petitions “to defend and promote life, family, and liberty”.

On its board is former Italian deputy prime minister Luca Volontè, who was named in an internal inquiry by the Council of Europe as being suspected of “activities of a corruptive nature”.

Volontè was already investigated by Italian police in relation to €2.39m (£2m) he is accused of taking in bribes from Azerbaijan. Volontè denies all charges and has been acquitted on a separate count of money laundering.Among other Some ultra-conservative groups who have spent $50m in Europe over the past decade some have offices in Ireland.

Focus on the Family, which promotes the “right to counselling for unwanted same-sex attractions” — otherwise known as conversion therapy — has an associate office in Ireland.

The Irish branch offers information on family, parenting, and pro-life issues through a series of podcasts, DVDs, and blog posts.

“Like most Irish people, we are passionate about the family,” says the website.

“We are a charitable organisation, built on Christian principles, which supports, encourages, and strengthens the family through education and resources.”

It asks people to support the organisation’s work through a standing order of €25 per month. It also advises that donations of €250 or over, in a year, are eligible for tax relief.

Another US-based Catholic organisation with offices here is Human Life International (HLI). Similarly to CitizenGo, it was involved in the ‘Save the 8th’ campaign in Ireland last year. Its Irish office has an address in Knock, Co Mayo, and HLI Ireland is registered with the charity regulator.

Last month, it hosted a “national day of reparation” at six churches around Ireland for how 66.4% of the electorate voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment last year to legalise abortion here.

“In a spirit of atonement and repentance for the decision made by the public in the 2018 referendum and for all the ways that Ireland has turned away from God, we are hosting an afternoon of prayer in six locations around Ireland,” reads a statement about the event.

Based in a rural town in the state of Virginia, HLI describes itself as “the largest international pro-life organization in the world”.

In a previous investigation by The Guardian newspaper it showed that HLI “has for years directed a steady flow of dollars to Sí a la Vida, the Salvadoran organisation principally responsible for the country’s abortion ban”.

iStock
iStock

El Salvador has one of the strictest abortion bans in the world. In 2017, a 19-year-old who became pregnant after she was raped was sentenced to 30 years in jail after she suffered a stillbirth.

Another ultra-conservative Catholic network — Tradition, Family, Property (TFP) — whose US branch spent at least $100,000 in Europe since 2010 according to openDemocracy, and who run “chivalry camps”, also has a presence in Ireland.

HereIn Ireland, it goes by the name of the Irish Society for Christian Civilisation — TFP.

It runs “rosary rallies” and summer camps here, for boys and their fathers, where stories of Catholic heroes are told, presenting “true role models” for the participants to follow.

The organisation, which is also registered with the Irish charity regulator, said its aim “is to resist, in the realm of ideas, the atheistic, liberal, and socialist trends of our times and proudly affirm the positive values of Christian civilisation, through the dissemination of religious articles and Catholic literature, especially of the message of Fatima”.

While no link has been found connecting ultraconservative groups to Irish political parties, ties have been shown with Ireland, and these groups are still a cause for concern at a European political level.

Commenting on OpenDemocracy’s recent findings, connecting ‘dark money’ to European politics, as has happened in US politics, former Wisconsin Democratic senator Russ Feingold warned of a “downward spiral effect on democracy”.

“There is a great irony in this,” he said. “[Far-right parties] are trying to appeal to ultra-nationalist sentiments but they are using tactics that are completely contrary to the sovereignty of those countries.

“These are international actors, oligarchs and others who are trying to control the political processes of these countries. Even if you are a nationalist, one would think you would be a little bit concerned about that.”

We must be on our guard against heavily financed, insidious populists

By Mary Fitzgerald

Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, greeting supporters ahead of European elections last month, in Milan. His Lega party claimed 32% of the vote, compared with 6% five years ago. Picture: Miguel Medina
Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, greeting supporters ahead of European elections last month, in Milan. His Lega party claimed 32% of the vote, compared with 6% five years ago. Picture: Miguel Medina

EUROPEAN elections, historically, don’t set the political temperature soaring.

At the last election, in 2014, the average turnout was 42%. Ireland was slightly higher. Half of the electorate voted here. In the UK, just 35% did.

This time, there was a record,20-year high turnout, of 50%, across Europe. Far-right parties campaigning on anti-EU platforms gained ground, but not to the extent that some had predicted.

In Britain, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party — which campaigned on a platform of leaving the EU without a deal — topped the polls, as did Marine Le Pen in France.

Italy’s Lega party, led by Matteo Salvini, claimed 32% of the vote in early projections, compared with 6% five years ago.

These far-right movements often vary widely from country to country. But they have key themes in common — they are stridently opposed to migration and call for greater national sovereignty.

The similarities do not end there. As well as being wary of outsiders, many of these parties are often opposed to women’s and LGBTQI rights. That backlash against the gains of recent years is increasingly being funded by powerful international backers.

A recent investigation by Open-Democracy found that America’sreligious right spent $50m on ‘dark money’ campaigns and advocacy in Europe over the past decade.

To put this into context, the total spend on the 2014 European elections by all of Ireland’s politicalparties, combined, was just $3m.

A number of these US Christian groups were heavily involved in the campaign against repealing the Eighth Amendment last year.

Far-right leaders frequently attack ‘gender ideology’ and ‘gender theory’: a not-so-coded pushback against a range of rights that have been recognised across the continent during the past two decades.

These attacks come particularly from Mr Salvini and Victor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, who have aligned with religious conservatives globally, but also from the far-right Vox party in Spain, which has vowed to roll back laws on domestic abuse, and from politicians from Poland’s Law and Justice Party, who have pushed limits on contraception and abortion.

Implicit, and often explicit, in these moves are the premises that women, LGBTQI, people of colour, and migrants should not be afforded equal protections under the law.

It’s a rhetoric that seeks to shift power away from individuals who have universal rights, and onto powerful institutions — churches, patriarchal family structures, and ‘strong leaders’.

Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness recently introduced proposals to give religious groups greater access to the decision-making process in Brussels. She insisted the proposed changes would apply to “all stakeholders” and would also give secular groups more power, but in Brussels, as elsewhere, it’s often the religious lobby that is the most organised, and the most well-funded.

Many religious campaigners and their far-right allies have appropriated European ‘secular’ languageto make their case: Of science or bioethics to advocate against ‘gay propaganda’ in schools; of ‘freedom of speech’ to refuse business to same-sex couples; of ‘men’s rights’ to roll back on domestic abuse protections.

There has been much talk of potential Russian interference in the European elections — and there’s evidence that the Kremlin has been involved in attempts to manipulate our politics, especially online.

But there’s far less attention paid to the role of the American right in our politics. The support isn’t justfinancial: It’s often logistical, and practical.

American conservatives haveincreasingly been working with groups throughout Europe. Our work has found substantial evidence of unaccountable “dark money” flowing across the Atlantic.

Already, dark money has corroded the US political system, turning democratic contests into competitions between plutocrats who can spend millions to ensure their candidate’s success.

Former US Democratic senator Russ Feingold, who worked alongside Republican senator John McCain for reform of electoralfinance in the US, has warned that “Europe has an opportunity to get ahead of this and not make the same mistakes that were made here in the United States.” Much of the recent focus has been about how many seats are gained by the far right.

But we need to pay far more attention to how the far-right is shifting the narrative about who we are as human beings, and to all the global networks pushing for this behind the scenes.

Mary Fitzgerald is editor in chief of the news website OpenDemocracy.net

LGBT still a target for bigotry in Poland

[ulVanessa Gera

People wave rainbow flags and wear costumes during the Baltic gay pride parade on Saturday on the streets of the Polish capital Warsaw. Pictures: Janek Skarzynsk
People wave rainbow flags and wear costumes during the Baltic gay pride parade on Saturday on the streets of the Polish capital Warsaw. Pictures: Janek Skarzynsk

The largest gay pride parade in central and eastern Europe brought tens of thousands of people to the streets of Warsaw on Saturday at a time when Poland’s LGBT rights movement is the target of a government campaign depicting it as a threat.

Diplomats from the US, Canada, and other Western countries continued a recent tradition of joining the festive Equality Parade to show support for a community experiencing leaps of progress and a backlash around the world.

In a first, the Polish capital’s mayor also participated. Opening the parade, Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski said it is now common for cities across Europe to support LGBT pride marches.

“Not everyone has to go to the Equality Parade but everyone should respect minority rights,” Mr Trzaskowski told the crowd from a parade float. “It’s really important for me that Warsaw be open, that Warsaw be tolerant.” While many Poles in Warsaw and other cities have increasingly grown supportive of gay rights, a backlash is also underway. In recent months, officials from Poland’s right-wing ruling party have portrayed the LGBT rights movement, citing in particular calls for sex education that stresses tolerance of minorities, as a threat to families, children and society.

Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski recently called the movement a foreign import that threatened the nation’s identity. In conservative areas, town councils have been declaring their municipalities “LGBT-free”. And on the eve of the parade, a far-right journalist on public television, Rafal Ziemkiewicz, sent chills down the spines of the LGBT community.

In a tweet, he said “one must shoot at LGBT” people, before adding “not in the literal sense of course — but these are not people of good will or defenders of anybody’s rights. [The movement is] a new mutation of Bolsheviks and Nazis.” Slava Melnyk, head of the Campaign Against Homophobia, warned about the possible consequences of such provocative language.

“His words are read by hundreds of thousands of people,” said Mr Melnyk. “It’s possible that one of those people will take his word about shooting at LGBT people literally.” Uschi Pawlik, who was marching with her LGBT Christian group, Faith and Rainbow, described feeling excluded in the mostly Roman Catholic nation.

“We feel that the government has made a scapegoat of us,” said Ms Pawlik. “Many of us feel excluded by our own country and our own church. So it is painful, but many of us think this is a reason to fight, and not the moment to give up.” Hubert Sobecki, head of Love Does Not Exclude, a group seeking marriage equality, said the situation is particularly frightening for young people struggling with their sexual identity. He said some are afraid to come out and some straight children are also bullied because they are perceived as gay.

Call centres have been working to prevent suicides, but they do not always succeed, he said.

Last month, a transgender girl killed herself by jumping from a bridge in Warsaw. When a group of people went later with a rainbow flag to the bridge to honour her, they were assaulted.

Mr Sobecki said: “There is lots of hate in the public media and by the ruling party, but you also have a growing movement of people realising we are fighting for our lives.” LGBT rights became a key topic of public debate earlier this year when Mr Trzaskowski, from the centrist opposition party Civic Platform, issued an LGBT rights declaration. In one point, it set out the city’s commitment to try and help find shelter for gay youth rejected by their parents. In another, he promised to incorporate World Health Organization guidelines on sex and tolerance education into Warsaw’s school system.

However, Poland’s education minister described the LGBT rights declaration as an attempt to groom children for paedophiles and said sex education is the responsibility of families.

By seizing on the issue, the ruling conservatives have managed to energise their base and divide the political opposition.

Elsewhere in the region, an estimated 10,000 people joined a peaceful pride parade in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius — a far cry from the first parade in 2008 that included brick- throwing and mounted police using tear gas.

Several thousand people also joined the 12th pride event in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, under the slogan ‘Don’t give power to hatred’.

Gays and lesbians face widespread hostility in the Balkan country’s macho-dominated society, and opposition to their public events has been fierce despite anti-discrimination laws that protect their rights.

Resources needed to tackle online manipulation

By Niamh Kirk

THE value of social media as a facility for democratic discussion and as an important watchdog to powerful people and organisations must be recognised and protected.

But what happens when these powerful communication platforms are exploited to manipulate online discussion, to change the public perception of political entities, or to shape the outcome of elections?

This came into sharp focus over the past few weeks with European and local elections here, the divorce referendum, and votes on directly-elected mayors in Cork city, Limerick, and Waterford.

A lot of what Irish citizens learned about these elections, the issues at stake and the candidates and parties standing, will have come via online news, from across the globe and within Ireland.

Therefore, social media is a point of significant focus and concern.

About 66% of people use digital media as a main source of news and about 53% use social media, according to a 2018 Reuters Digital News Report. And, according to Eurobarometer, more than half of Irish people are concerned about disinformation.

During last year’s referendum to repeal the the Eighth Amendment, the Transparency Referendum Initiative provided an archive of political advertising to ensure that the public had an insight into who was paying to push their political messages on Facebook.

Two weeks before the vote, Facebook banned ads from foreign groups seeking to influence the vote, Google banned all ads relating to the referendum.

There were hopes that the Government would implement regulations regarding political advertising, compeling political parties and campaign groups to disclose more about their spending online in time for the coming election.

But decisive action has been lacking.

We still don’t know how various parties manage their online campaigns; how much they spend on distribution and content creation; who they target and exclude; and how many pages they run across different social media platforms.

We need to understand the advantage bought rather than the advantage algorithmically gained through engagement, such as likes and shares, among our online communities.

In the meantime, Google, Twitter, and Facebook have opened ad libraries to enhance transparency. But these resources offer only a partial view and still are not clear about what is going on across other platforms such as Spotify.

In this election cycle, however, the most extreme right parties did not engage in the types of mass targeted advertising campaigns as have occurred in the USA and UK.

But nonetheless, we need to be aware of the potential for this. And just because populist parties are not advertising heavily, that does not mean the communities are not active online.

There are dozens of these YouTube accounts with varying levels of followers, from a few as 98 to as many as 40,000. Similarly, there are dozens of pages on Facebook and Instagram, forums on Reddit, and countless threads on Discord, 4Chan, and handles on Twitter.

There have been examples of political fundraising taking place on social media platforms. And there are serious concerns regarding the extent to which social algorithms direct users towards this type of content.

Issues that affect elections and public discourse vary, but there are commonalities. Particularly around election times, we need to be conscious of co-ordinated trolling campaign pages against candidates and political interest groups to disrupt political discourse; attempts to both hamper and exploit news media; attempts to inject misinformation into debate to distract or to reframe issues to stoke up hate.

The content uses somewhat sophisticated ways in which far-right groups play on insecurities, lack of information, coding their politics as something seemingly more benign. They often bait with one topic, such as housing, and switch to another — immigration, for example. This mixture of more malicious actors with well-meaning misinformed people that are acting of concerned and confused can lead to a toxic environment for working through critical political issues.

During previous referendum cycles and about other politicised news events in Ireland, we have seen examples of far-right ideology being shared in the media. During the referendum on the Eighth Amendment, volunteers recorded hundreds of unregulated adverts online. There have been examples of attention- hacking the media to focus on minority groups as well as attempts to reframe news events to align with far-right agendas.

Hate Track found that different forms of hate speech are widespread online and are often coded to seem more benign.

Pressures are mounting for increased transparency and accountability of social media. And these global giants are increasingly giving way to it and putting more manpower into content moderation.

At the same time, there is a range of initiatives that are highlighting the ideologies that lie behind seemingly benign or apolitical accounts or pages.

The news media cover some of the most severe aspects of online disinformation. And this year the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has held a media literacy public awareness campaign.

The Future of Journalism at Dublin City University is developing an online tool to help users quickly evaluate the quality of what they see online.

But we need more investment in initiatives to support citizens as they wade through the oceans of content online, ensure the validity of elections, and to hold organisations to account.

Niamh Kirk is a researcher of news media and networks at Dublin City University

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