The accounts of the Iona Institute are opaque but its links to the wider anti-gender rights movement are as clear as day

The accounts of the Iona Institute are opaque but its links to the wider anti-gender rights movement are as clear as day

Accounts for the conservative Catholic Iona Institute show that in recent years it appears to have spent roughly 50% of its income on wages for just two employees. In returns Iona made for 2020 to the Companies Registration Office (CRO), where it’s registered as a limited guarantee company called Lolek Limited, it recorded income of €202,775 with €181,795 coming from donations. But previous years show substantially more income, especially around the time of the campaign to legalise abortion in 2018.

A 2021 report linked Iona’s income to the Novae Terrae Foundation, which itself came from the proceeds of a Russian money laundering scheme. Iona’s representatives have also appeared at Agenda Europe summits alongside a number of well-known anti-LGBTQIA+ and anti-abortion rights campaigners and groups.

Income and expenditure

In financial statements for 2020 Iona reported income of €202,775. Of that figure €181,795 came from “regular” donations and a further €20,980 from Revenue’s Charitable Donation Scheme. The latter allows registered charities such as Iona to claim tax relief on donations of at least €250 made by individuals in a single year. Revenue points out on its website that if an individual makes a contribution of €1,000, the charity in question can claim a further €449.29 as a result of the scheme.

Amongst its unaudited expenses, Iona claims it spent €100,000 on “Wages and salaries” for what The Beacon understands to be two employees: Its director, David Quinn, and Dr. Angelo Bottone who serves as research officer. Queries we made to Iona to verify this have gone unanswered. 

Further outgoings include €11,050 on “Social welfare costs”, €3,500 on an “Employee’s Pension”, €15,000 for rent, and €10,954 for “Advertising and Market research”. Costs for “Consultancy, Research, & Speaker fees” came to €6,570, a substantial drop from the previous year in which it amounted to €16,845. Iona’s “Charitable donations” for 2020 are listed as €500. Its total expenses for the year came to €173,044.

But Iona’s financial returns for 2018 reveal substantially more income compared to recent years. Its 2018 financial statements lay bare income of €441,696. In contrast to its records for other years, Iona doesn’t disclose the origins of this income. Instead, it merely notes that it was obtained in the Republic of Ireland “and is derived from the principle activity of the promotion and advancement of marriage and religion in society”.

2018 was also the same year in which a referendum was held in relation to the repealing of the 8th amendment which would legalise abortion. Iona, which campaigned widely against the legalising of abortion, noted expenses of €498.262 leaving it a deficit of €56,499. Of these expenses, €95,000 was spent on “Wages and salaries”, €138,635 on “Advertising & Market research”, and a further €167,796 for “Consultancy, Research, & Speaker fees”. And in a similar pattern to its 2020 accounts, Iona’s “Charitable donations” are a tiny percentage of its revenue, coming to just €2,000.

Records for 2015 show a comparable surge in income, this time in relation to the referendum on marriage equality. Iona’s accounts that year show takings of €355,437 with it reporting donations amounting to €205,607 specifically under the heading of “marriage referendum”. But Iona ended up with a deficit of €68,621 as a result of expenditure coming to €424,058. Its “Marriage referendum campaign costs” alone are listed as €194,503.

The “laundromat” link

Although the origins of Iona’s funding are opaque, an investigation has uncovered that some of it was the end result of a money laundering scheme.

Last year the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual & Reproductive Rights (EPF) issued a report on the funders behind campaigns against human rights for members of the LGBTQIA+ community and against reproductive health rights. It found that during the period from 2009 to 2018, $707.2m in “anti-gender funding” — which it described as just “the tip of the iceberg” — came from a group of just 54 organisations, with the three main geographical origins of these groups being the US, Russia, and Europe. In the case of Russia, funding amounting to $188.2m originated there from organisations associated with two oligarchs linked to the Kremlin: Vladimir Yakunin and Konstatin Malofeev.

Authorities have described both men as being involved in financial “laundromats”, which have been set up in order to help them engage in illegal financial activity. In 2018 Italian journalists uncovered one such Russian-Azerbaijani laundromat that at one point was sending over €100,000 per month to the Novae Terrae Foundation. Altogether the foundation, which was headed up by former Italian MP and former chair of the European People’s Party, Luca Volontè, received €2.39m from the laundromat and then redistributed that amongst four anti-LGBTQIA+ rights and conservative religious groups in Europe, with the Iona Institute being one of them. In return for this financial largesse the Novae Terrae Foundation engaged in “undermining reports on Azerbaijan’s record of human rights abuses at the Council of Europe”.

A diagram from the EPF report showing how the Russian-Azerbaijani laundromat functioned.

Eventually authorities and journalists uncovered the scheme and the transfer of money was halted. The Council of Europe investigated and wrote there were “‘substantial grounds to believe that Mr Volontè engaged in activity of a corruptive nature’”. As a result, the Council banned Volontè from both the Parliamentary Assembly and the Council itself for life. Italian authorities also conduced their own investigation, with Volontè going on trial, being found guilty, and then sentenced to four years in prison in early 2021.

Iona’s accounts make no such mention of funding it received from the Novae Terrae Foundation and our enquires to it about the source of its funding have gone unanswered.

Another image from the EPF laying out the scope of Russian funding for the anti-gender rights movements in Europe.

Deeper connections

But the institute’s connections to the Novae Terrae Foundation extend further with its director, Quinn, speaking at the same Agenda Europe conferences as Volontè. These annual meetings of assorted conservative and reactionary, anti-gender rights groups and individuals are backed by various far-right and anti-LGBTQIA+ organisations. One, the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM), promotes gay conversion therapy and is anti-abortion and anti-surrogacy. Another is the Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF International), likewise an anti-LGBTQIA+ and anti-abortion rights group which also engages in litigation both nationally and at the European level. In the US, ADF International is a designated hate group with one of its directors being Sophia Kuby, whose mother is a popular “anti-gender” author amongst the European and US far right. According to the EPF, ADF International has spent $23.3m over a period of eleven years in Europe.

Another US-based supporter of the Agenda Europe conferences is the Acton Institute, a conservative think tank “dedicated to religious inspired individual and economic freedom”. During the period of 2008 to 2019 Acton shelled out $2.3m on various Christian and anti-LGBTQIA+ causes in Europe. The Federalist Society, yet another conservative, US-based group, has also spent millions in Europe to push its belief system, including sponsoring the Agenda Europe conferences. It calls for “limited government”, campaigns against abortion rights, and “supports the existence of biased ‘crisis pregnancy centres’ based on freedom of speech”. Its spending in the same 11-year period comes to $5.9m.

As a result of WikiLeaks making available a trove of documents called The Intolerance Network, the names of the participants at these summits are now accessible. 

Volontè and Quinn both participated in the 2014 Agenda Europe summit which took place at Fürstenried Castle in Munich. For his part Quinn moderated a discussion on the topic of marriage and “how do we need to defend it in public”. One of the speakers was Brian Brown, a board member of CitizenGo, the “ultra-conservative social mobilisation platform” and an offshoot of the Spanish far-right group Hazte Oir. He currently serves as the president of the World Congress of Families, “an anti-LGBT hate group” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Brown was also a patron of Volontè’s, having sent the latter an “undisclosed” amount of financial support after funding from the Russian-Azerbaijani laundromat stopped. The other speaker was Dr. Željka Markić, the leader of the Croatian anti-LGBTQIA+ and conservative group U ime obitelji (In the Name of Family). Balkan Insight has described Markić’s party as “trying to design a Croatian society in the Catholic-chauvinist spirit and impose rigid conservative standards as a general obligation”.

Volontè spoke on the topic of a “pro family initiative for Europe”. The details of his presentation are not known, but given the list of speakers was a who’s who of conservative Christian and far-right-linked groups it’s easy to imagine what its contents were.

Dr. Peadar Ó Scolaí, aka Peter Scully of Youth Defence fame, likewise moderated a discussion during the summit. His name is also listed on a letter as a member of the summit’s Executive Committee. The organisers sent the now leaked letter to Ignacio Arsuago of CitizenGo, confirming his co-sponsorship of the summit, along with an invoice of €5,000 with instructions to wire the fee to a Belgian bank account.

An agenda

The next Agenda Europe summit was held in Dublin across two days in September 2015. Many of those who attended the 2014 event also spoke, with Quinn and Volontè both giving presentations. In describing the event the programme for Agenda Europe 2015 says it’s “the only European network dedicated to bringing the main European NGOs together to design a common strategy to advance an authentic human rights agenda”. It would bring together “key pro-life and pro-family leaders in every European country”. What’s more, it noted that “Critical strategies will be presented covering areas including surrogacy, religious freedom, euthanasia, marriage, and the rights of the unborn” during the conference. To that end, Niamh Uí Bhríain of the Life Institute spoke on the issue of “Banning Euthanasia in Europe”.

Quinn also authored a chapter for a book whose publication was supported by the Novae Terrae Foundation and which featured many of the same speakers at the Agenda Europe summits mentioned above. In his chapter Quinn argues that Christian opposition to abortion isn’t “interference” in the affairs of the state but, instead, “rises from a concern for justice in society”. He bemoans that fact that Christian influence on the state is seen as “illegitimate and somehow undemocratic” while at the same time feminists and socialists don’t “have to operate under similar handicaps”. He describes feminists as being “allowed to campaign for more equality between men and women (as they define equality)” which then makes it “very difficult for women to stay at home to look after their children”. Quinn finishes his chapter by writing that the task of Christians is to “resist this attempt to quarantine religion and to assert the rightful place of religious believers in the public square” and attacks “aggressive secularism” as a “totalitarian urge” in our societies.

Although the Iona Institute continues to play an undeservedly prominent role in discourse around gender and LGBTQIA+ rights in Ireland, the network of supporters it has aligned itself with is not often, if ever, discussed in the mainstream press. Iona and its work can’t be seen in isolation, especially given the level of Europe-wide coordination and financing taking place on top of funding originating in the US. But even if we now know more, the EPF has stated that the amount of funding it uncovered for anti-gender rights activism in Europe is likely “an underestimation”. It seems the problem won’t be going anyway any time soon.

Featured image via YouTube – Screenshot

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