The Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) has written to Phil Hogan, the environment minister, seeking an increase in its powers of enforcement over organisations involved in political activity.
It follows the refusal of Youth Defence to register and furnish information and documents in relation to its activities.
Under law, third parties — or individuals and groups other than political parties — who accept donations for political purposes must register with Sipo. In response to a query from a member of the public, Sipo said it is “firmly of the view” that the activities of Youth Defence can be defined as “political purposes”. However, it said the definition of “political purposes” in the act is “quite broad” and on that basis, Youth Defence believes it does not need to register.
“There is no penalty for failure to comply with this provision of the act,” it said.
“Section 25 of the Electoral Act 1997, as amended, sets out the offences and penalties for various categories of individuals and groups, in relation to donations, and unregistered third parties is not one of those categories listed,” it said.
“In essence, without legislative support, the Standards Commission is not in a position to act on your complaint.”
Questions have repeatedly been raised over how Youth Defence funds its sophisticated and nationwide media and advertising campaign.
Joseph Scheidler of the US-based Pro-Life Action League recently claimed that hundreds of thousands of US dollars have poured into the anti-abortion campaign in Ireland, with Youth Defence among the big recipients.
Last summer, the advertising watchdog said it had received more than 100 complaints about Youth Defence’s billboard ads which were described as “offensive and inaccurate”.
However, the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland said it was powerless to do anything about the concerns because banning the advertisements would amount to a breach of freedom of speech.
The ads showed images of young, distraught women and foetuses and carried slogans such as “Abortion tears her life apart”, and “There’s always a better answer”, with the word “always” underlined.