During a Seanad debate last week Senator Rónán Mullen claimed that the new Safe Access Zone Bill “flirts with fascism”. The senator went on to describe the bill, which would ban protest outside facilities which provide abortions, as “restrictive of free speech” and an attack on civil liberties. Along with Senator Sharon Keogan he was the only one present to oppose the bill as it currently stands.
But Mullen has in the past also appeared at a so-called “strategic retreat” in London alongside well-known anti-gender rights campaigners like Spain’s founder of the far-right Hazte Oir and CitizenGo, Ignacio Arsuaga. And, what’s more, he’s due to speak at another similar conference in Hungary later this year.
Filibustering a right to healthcare
Activists and politicians have lobbied for the introduction of the bill because of the regular appearance of anti-choice protestors outside clinics and hospitals. Together for Safety has also argued that everyone has a right to “go to work without having to worry about passing pickets or putting up with harassment or intimidating behaviour”. The government was supposed to introduce a 100 metre “safe zone” alongside the legalisation of abortion in 2019 although this was delayed.
But now the Safe Access to Termination of Pregnancy Services Bill 2021 is currently in the Seanad where Mullen, along with with Senator Keogan, appeared to be attempting to filibuster.
On Thursday, 7 April, Mullen told his fellow senators that the bill shows “disrespect for the law and procedure”. During his lengthy contributions the senator insisted the proposed legislation is “so restrictive of free speech” that people sitting in a hospital coffee shop might discuss abortion and be guilty of a criminal offence as the bill currently stands. He described it as draconian and “a massive disrespect for civil liberties, the right to free expression and the right to dissent at work”. And that it “flirts with fascism because it seeks to criminalise respectful free speech”.
In further remarks on the bill Mullen pressed the idea that the bill was fascist in nature, insisting that he was not using the term “for dramatic effect”. He maintained that “No responsible democrat should have anything to do with it”. But he also went on to call it “Marxist”, asserting that zealous supporters of the bill have no issue with it doing harm to allies. Mullen bizarrely contended they’ve “no problem burning some of their own as well in an effort to root out all opposition”. On more than one occasion the cathaoirleach and multiple senators had to call on Mullen to keep his comments brief.
His only support on the day appears to have come from Senator Keogan who accused supporters of the bill of having “totally misrepresented it”. She argued along similar lines to Mullen and told the Seanad that the bill would be an attack on civil liberties and freedom of speech. Keogan was attempting to have an amendment inserted into the bill which would exempt areas inside buildings where abortion is provided from the safe access legislation. It was in fact Keogan who first used the example of people having a discussion about abortion and birth control in a hospital coffee shop and that the bill will criminalise this.
Senators voted down the amendment, with Senator Pauline O’Reilly responding to Keogan and Mullen that “The idea that there would be a safe access zone outside of a building, but everybody inside would be allowed to engage in intimidation, is bizarre, quite frankly”. After hours of debate, which was partially a result of the filibustering and interruptions of Keogan and Mullen, the bill passed the fourth stage.
Despite Mullen’s protestations that the bill “flirts with fascism” the senator has links to far-right extremists and anti-gender rights groups.
We now know he apparently attended a “strategic retreat” in London in January 2013 consisting of “approximately 20 pro life [sic] leaders and strategic consultants”. The information comes from documents WikiLeaks uploaded last year as part of its Intolerance Network leaks. In the leaked file the retreat is portrayed as being designed so that attendees can “network and discuss”. Two of the main topics to be debated were “developing a Christian-inspired European think tank and developing strategies for the pro-life movement in Europe”.
The meeting, which the document calls “strictly confidential”, lists Spain’s Ignacio Arsuaga as a participant. The European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual & Reproductive Rights (EPF) has classified Arsuaga’s Hazte Oir, a political and social “watchdog”, as “one of the most important organisations on the far-right of the political spectrum”. It also has spin-off groups to focus on specific issues such as abortion and religious freedom, like CitizenGo. Modelled as a far-right version of the political activism website Avaaz, CitizenGo has pumped money into anti-gender rights causes across Europe. The EPF has revealed that since 2009 both CitizenGo and Hazte Oir have generated income of $32.8m. Some of CitizenGo’s funding came from a Russian money laundering operation which was routed through the Italian Novae Terrae Foundation. Ireland’s Iona institute received financial support via the same channel.
Also recorded as an attendee is Sophia Kuby. She’s the founder of European Dignity Watch, an anti-gender rights lobby group, and at the time of the London meeting she was its executive director. Kuby has since joined Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International which the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) calls an extremist hate group. Founded in the US in 1994 by a number of prominent members of the Christian Right, the group aims to “insert its anti-LGBTQ, anti-choice agenda into every element of government and society”. Although based in Scottsdale, Arizona, it has affiliates around the globe with five offices in Europe employing at least 15 lawyers. ADF International is also the second-largest funder of anti-gender rights campaigns in Europe, spending over $23m between 2009 and 2018. For her part Kuby works with the group as its director of strategic relations and training. Notably, Kuby is also the daughter of Gabriele Kuby, an anti-gender rights author who’s popular amongst the Christian and far right and who sees herself as being in a fight “for the truth of Christ”.
US anti-abortion activist Lila Rose is also listed on the programme. Rose is a prominent anti-abortion campaigner who in the past has compared abortion to the Holocaust and slavery. More recently she appeared next to then president Donald Trump at a White House tech summit in 2019. As founder of anti-choice group Live Action, Rose complained to the now former president that her group was unable to advertise on social media. But she thanked Trump and his administration “for holding this very important summit.” A number of other US-based anti-abortion activists were present at the 2013 meeting in London, including Bryan Kemper of Stand True and James Nolan of Crossroads Pro-Life.
But Mullen was not the only Irishman there with Dr. Peadar Ó Scolaí, aka Peter Scully, also being mentioned in the leaked document. A member of Youth Defence in the early 90s, Ó Scolaí left the the group and became director of Human Life International’s (HLI) Irish branch in 1994. Eventually leaving HLI Ireland too, he went on to found anti-abortion group Family and Life. But official documents show he hasn’t been involved with the group since at least 2002. Instead, Ó Scolaí appears to be involved with the secretive and annual anti-gender rights summit Agenda Europe. A document included in WikiLeaks’ Intolerance Network files lists him as a member of Agenda Europe’s Executive Committee. Curiously, Sophia Kuby’s ADF International is a co-sponsor of the Agenda Europe meetings.
Amongst fellow travellers
Jumping ahead, Mullen is due to appear at the Transatlantic Summit of the Political Network for Values (PNfV) in Budapest in May which is co-sponsored by CitizenGo. According to the EPF, the PNfV “holds regular transatlantic strategising sessions on areas of common interest, including how to restrict, prevent and eventually ban abortion and to halt the expansion of same-sex marriage”. The programme for its summit in May is demonstrates as much, with delegates from all over the world attending.
Mullen is scheduled to appear on a panel about the issue of “Defending and promoting life, family and freedom in national parliaments”. CitizenGo’s Arsuaga will chair the discussion between Mullen and politicians from Africa, Spain, and the US. Representing the latter will be Iowa Republican state senator Amy Sinclair. In 2017 she voted to halt funding for Planned Parenthood and any healthcare provider which offers abortion. She also voted in favour of a ban on abortion when a foetal heartbeat can be detected.
A who’s who of representatives of anti-gender rights groups, the conference will also feature Jaime Mayor Oreja, a former Spanish minister of home affairs and former mayor of Barcelona. In 2017 he insisted that “Gay Decadence” was the cause of the terrorist attack in Barcelona earlier that year which left 16 people dead. A defender of the Franco Regime, he also founded the Fundacion Valores y Sociedad in 2011 which has funded anti-abortion campaigns in Europe. Oreja will be joined at the meeting by fellow Spaniard Santiago Abascal who co-founded and currently leads the far-right party Vox. He’s previously called for the expulsion of Muslim people from Spain and has attacked what he called “supremacist feminism”.
While Mullen’s presence at these meetings is not surprising it’s also not something he publicises either. He shares much in common with the individuals at these meetings and summits. Whenever debate around the right to abortion comes up Mullen is never far behind. Throughout his political life he’s campaigned against the right of women to have bodily autonomy, even if it means making outrageous claims in furtherance of his cause.
In the run-up to the referendum on the 8th amendment, Mullen insisted that doctors treating Savita Halappanavar were “in no way constrained by the Eight Amendment”. The dentist died of sepsis as a result of being denied an abortion in accordance with the then law. He also argued that “Mental health has no evidence base” when assessing the need for abortion. It’s no surprise that the Pro Life Campaign regularly lobbies him.
The senator was also opposed to the legalisation of gay marriage in Ireland. Writing in the Irish Times the day before voters went to the ballot boxes in May 2015, Mullen ludicrously declared that “The very use of the term ‘marriage equality’ on the ballot paper is designed to make voters think they are anti-equality if they’re leaning towards a No”.
Mullen’s tactic is to make appalling claims and then feign ignorance and innocence when others call him out. It’s an attempt at playing dirty when, in fact, people’s lives are not something to be simply played with. He regularly rubs shoulders with far-right extremists intent on rolling back human rights while at the same time declaring a bill, which would make it safe for people to receive healthcare, “flirts with fascism”. It’s hypocrisy at its finest. And you’d expect nothing less.
Featured image via Screenshot