Law could force Youth Defence to reveal funds

New laws that would force anti-abortion campaign group Youth Defence to disclose the source of its funding are being considered by Environment Minister Phil Hogan.

Mr Hogan has made the commitment to examine the possibility of imposing sanctions on groups other than political parties that refused to disclose their funding in legislation due before the Dáil in the autumn.

He made the promise in response to a letter from the chairman of the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) asking for its powers to be strengthened.

Sipo’s chairman, Justice Matthew Smith, told Mr Hogan it has been “impossible for the commission to operate effectively” in the area of abortion campaigning.

He said the recent debate on abortion “has once again highlighted the ineffectiveness of the existing provisions”.

Under current law, any third party that receives a donation of more than €100 and is involved in political campaigning must register with Sipo and declare the source of its funding.

However, failure to comply with this provision does not carry any offence or penalty, and therefore is often ignored by campaign groups.

Sipo has regularly raised this issue in its annual reports and highlighted concerns following the debate on the Lisbon Treaty referendum about its inability to monitor third parties involved in that particular campaign.

In response to Justice Smith’s letter, Mr Hogan said he could confirm that consideration will be given to the commission’s recommendations during the preparation of updated laws on referendum and election campaign funding.

Yesterday, the Irish Examiner reported correspondence between Sipo and a member of the public, informing them that Youth Defence — which is known for its graphic anti-abortion ad campaigns — had repeatedly refused requests to declare its funding.

“In essence, without legislative support, the standards commission is not in a position to act on your complaint,” the commission wrote.

Questions have been raised over how Youth Defence funds its sophisticated media campaign and nationwide advertising drive.

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.

The organisation did not answer a number of queries from the Irish Examiner on where it got its funding, or why this information is not available.

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 foetuses and young, distraught women, and carried slogans such as “abortion tears her life apart”, and “there’s always a better answer”, with the word “always” underlined.

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