Michael Barron, the founder of EQUATE, a civil rights group working to remove the Baptism barrier in Irish schools, has revealed that a targeted campaign of “dirty tricks” from religious groups left them with no choice but to close down.
As the organisation was constantly being investigated by SIPO, they were unable to fundraise and were eventually forced to cease operations, even though they were not in breach of regulation.
Barron, who is also the founder of BeLonG To spoke to GCN about how groundless complaints played a large role in the shutting down of the organisation and their mission to remove the Baptism barrier:
“We were getting a series of complaints made against us through the Standards in Public Office Commission. So SIPO was passing on these complaints to us by making a series of queries and really unreasonable demands for all sorts of information. We were at a loss to understand why they were onto us because they were complaining that we were breaching the Electoral Act, but that act covers elections and referenda, we weren’t working on that. They kept at us so much that we just couldn’t do our job, and eventually we had to wind up because we just couldn’t fundraise.”
On our last day – a short vid on the work – thank you especially to families working for equality in education https://t.co/1x1WRlK5WW
— EQUATE (@equateireland) November 30, 2017
Barron found that a lobbyist associated with religious groups had lodged a series of complaints:
“Religious groups were opposed to the baptism barrier removal and they were fighting it tooth and nail, so essentially the picture that is being painted is that the church, with enormous resources, were using a dirty tricks campaign to try and silence us.”
Barron and EQUATE always maintained that the group was not in breach of the Electoral Act, which forbids political organisations from accepting donations from abroad, anonymous donations over €100, or any donation exceeding €2,500. They were proved correct and documents released under Freedom Of Information found that SIPO ultimately gave EQUATE a clean bill of health.
“It never made sense that an education organisation with no links to elections, referendums or foreign donations would be pursued by SIPO in this way,” said Barron. “This was clearly a serious misuse of the SIPO complaints mechanism to silence an Equality organisation.”
EQUATE, Amnesty International and Education Equality were targeted with complaints.
Barron added that there is a pattern in this campaign to have civil liberty groups shut down:
“People who are opposed to that work are using the SIPO mechanism because they can’t win public debates because the public mood has changed so much.”
Barron is among a number of campaigners who are seeking further clarification in the Electoral Act so that other organisations will not be shut down by similar tactics.
Liam Herrick, the director of the Irish Council For Civil Liberties released a statement on the complaints lodged against civil rights organisations:
“We’ve become increasingly aware of a number of organisations being pursued by the Standards in Public Office Commission in this way. And because of the concern we have about how this affects organisations’ ability to take part in advocacy, we’ve been raising this matter with SIPO and with the government.
“We are very clear that what’s happening is wrong and it’s interfering with International Human Rights’ standards and we think the government needs to address it by changing the law.”
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