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Politicians demonising NGOs is fodder for extremists

According to the handbook of regressive extremism, social justice organisations are the devil incarnate, their hooves and horns disguised by angels’ wings

Some Yes advocates for last month’s referendums on care and the family privately confess they feel so bruised by the personalised abuse they suffered on social media that they have decided to curtail their activism. For obvious reasons, these people do not want to be identified after being singled out for such vicious online attacks that, in some cases, made them fearful for their safety.

According to the handbook of regressive extremism, social justice organisations are the devil incarnate, their hooves and horns disguised by angels’ wings. They have been long-time targets of the far right. Much of the anti-NGO (non-governmental organisation) drivel slopping around the internet is laughable but, when it gets so nasty that it stops people working to support human rights, it poses a worrying threat to society.

One might expect that politicians, many of whom complain about the abuse aimed at themselves, would be wary of potentially giving oxygen to this campaign of vilification. While it is legitimate and even requisite for politicians to interrogate how public money is spent, it has been dismaying to hear echoes of the antipathy to NGOs by extremists with other agendas creeping into our national parliament.

Both during and since the referendums, some No campaigners have accused the National Women’s Council of Ireland of acting as a “proxy” for the Government and have insinuated, without providing evidence, that the organisation spent State money on its pro-referendums campaign. The council issued a statement that it is a registered body with the Standards in Public Office Commission and that it is fully compliant with both the McKenna court judgment of 1995 and the 1997 Electoral Act governing expenditure for referendums.*


Such was the vitriol spewed at council staff and some of its 200-member organisations that it suspended its comments on social media during the campaign.

Still the guilty-by-nods-n-winks have kept coming. The conservative website Gript has been running an online survey, asking: “Should NGOs like NWCI be allowed to spend money they receive from the government on political campaigns?” The clear and incorrect presumption in the question is that NGOs are not already prohibited by law from spending State funding on referendums. This is how misinformation grows legs.

Campaign literature circulated by Lawyers for No, a lobby group that involved Senator Michael McDowell and Clare TD Michael McNamara, stated: “The use of Government-funded NGOs to promote a Yes vote violates the McKenna principles on the conduct of referendums.” As if arguing for gender equality was not the council’s very raison d’etre and as if it had not been the one pushing for a referendum on the woman’s “life within the home” provision for decades. On RTÉ radio’s Claire Byrne Show, Senator Rónán Mullen questioned if the council had used money from State funding in the campaign. Having come out as a No voter after the referendums had been resoundingly rejected, Fianna Fáil TD Willie O’Dea urged the Government on X to start listening to the people and “stop listening to the out-of-touch Greens and NGOs”.

The chilling effect of all this is becoming evident.

Already, some NGOs have decided to hold their usual political hustings online rather than in person for the local and European elections. If this continues it will undermine pluralism and democracy and it will re-seed injustices in this country that have taken generations to weed out.

Politicians hinting about NGOs’ expenditure without evidence are unintentionally providing fodder for conspiracy theorists.

On the world stage, we have seen the devastating consequences of rhetoric that undermines humanitarian work. When the Israeli government made unproven allegations that 12 staff members of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa) were involved in Hamas’s October 7th murder rampage and that 190 of its 13,000 employees in Gaza were militants, the US immediately suspended its funding for the organisation, even amid warnings that Gaza was facing a famine. Germany, Japan, Australia, the UK, Canada, Sweden and five other donor countries followed suit.

The demonising of social justice organisations is not an exclusive weapon of western powers. In Russia, Vladimir Putin outlawed three human rights bodies, including the Anti-Corruption Foundation, established by his opposition rival, Alexei Navalny, who died prematurely in February in an Arctic penal colony.

George Soros, the Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist who has funded international human rights bodies, is the far right’s favourite whipping boy. Adherents to the far-right conspiracy theory of “the Great Replacement” accuse him of being the puppet master of the “globalist elite” because his Open Society Foundations have supported organisations that promote media freedom, anti-racism, democracy, education and the rights of minorities. During the 2016 US presidential election, Russian troll factories produced “dozens of posts blaming George Soros for a myriad of complaints across dozens of right-targeted Instagram accounts and Facebook pages”, according to a US Senate report.

After Mattie McGrath, a TD in the Rural Independents Group, read a script in the Dáil in 2022 accusing Klaus Schwab, the head of the World Economic Forum, of pursuing a vision for a corporatist-state government similar to Benito Mussolini’s fascism, the then taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said: “I can see far-right ideologues are going to try and penetrate groups in our parliament and get certain ideas across and we have to be vigilant about that.”

Soros named his philanthropic foundation after the book title, The Open Society and its Enemies. Its author, philosopher Karl Popper, a former teacher of Soros, wrote in that book: “If we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

These are words Irish politicians need to heed. No organisation should be above scrutiny or criticism but this doesn’t mean villainising them with innuendo and unsubstantiated claims. Mud sticks. NGOs have been in conservatives’ sights since the marriage equality and abortion referendums, the success of both having been attributed to the activism of civil society organisations. The National Women’s Council of Ireland, Amnesty International, the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, Transparency International, Pavee Point, Women’s Aid, Belong To and many others have made this country more hospitable for hundreds of thousands of people.

Politicians are putting those social benefits at risk with their careless whispers.

*This article was amended at 9am on April 5th 2024. An earlier version stated that the National Women’s Council of Ireland’s audited accounts published last September recorded its “charitable fund-raising income” at €1.7 million for the previous 12 months “equating to nearly half of its revenues”. In fact, its accounts state that “charitable activities” accounted for €1.07 million of its €1.13 million income in 2022. Funders under this heading included government departments, the HSE and non-governmental organisations.