Finance, SIPO & the repeal referendum


If you’ve been following online debates about Repeal you will have seen many, many references to Soros as supposedly funding the Yes campaign, even though much of the money was raised very publically when Together for Yes held an online fundraiser that brought in 550,000 euro from over 10,000 people.   The use of the George Soros’ name by right wing ideologues to discredit left wing movements is nothing new and speaks to an racist  stereotype, one associated in particular with the Nazis, of the Jewish financier influencing political decision-making through shadow channels and dirty tricks.

This appeal to a worn out stereotype was used by Brexiteers to suggest that Soros was involved in an underhand attempt to undermine and conspire against Brexit. The far right Hungarian prime minister, Victor Orban, and Polish head of state, Andrzej Duda, have accused Soros of attempting to destroy European values of nationhood and dilute European Christianity by supporting the migration of Muslim refugees. Claims exist from Trump supporters that Soros is bank rolling anti-Trump protests across the US. And on top of all this we are led to believe that Soros is also spearheading the pro-choice movement in Ireland by funding any pro-choice organisation in operation despite their compliance with SIPO. A busy man indeed.

But what do we know of the shadow figures who are bankrolling the anti-choice campaign? What are we to make of the fact that the harshest critics of Soros have come from campaigns that are themselves using funding from nefarious sources to target and bankroll political advertising? Why is it those who are quick to name Soros will never mention Robert Mercer – a right wing billionaire philanthropist, partial owner of Cambridge Analytica and main donor to the Trump campaign among other alt-right organisations including Breitbart News. What do we, in the pro-choice movement, need to worry about in the last few weeks of this campaign? In particular, what about this referendum is different to the shock results we have seen in Britain and the US?

From the very inception of this campaign we all knew it would be a battle between anti-choice money and a steadily building pro-choice, grass roots movement.  Pro-choice organisations that rely on volunteers and community support have been better placed to keep in line SIPO regulations, opposed to the anti-choice campaign which is built almost entirely on money, much of it foreign. From observation alone the sheer scale of spending by anti-choicers is startling, and while fundraising initiatives by Together for Yes have been massively successful and heartening, it simply cannot match that level of financing. This is seen in the number of anti-choice posters, billboards and, in particular, online advertising and the paid reach they can achieve. Numbers published by Gavin Sheridan show the scale at which money is being spent, for example, just one Protect the 8th video alone reached over 700,000 views within one week. That type of exposure does not come cheap.

These techniques sound very familiar, after all, we’ve been hearing a lot in recent months about how Brexit and Trump campaigns were able to pay large sums of money to direct political advertising at specific demographics of voters. All while using data that was collected from Facebook accounts without a user’s consent or knowledge. We also need to keep in mind there are very explicit links between Brexit, Cambridge Analytica and the anti-choice campaign. The Irish anti-abortion campaign has hired British consultancy firm, Kanto, to support its efforts to retain the 8th Amendment. Revealed by the the Irish edition of The UK Times, Kanto is headed by Thomas Borwick a former employee of Cambridge Analytica and was chief technology officer for the Vote Leave campaign.

Considering the above, no one could be blamed for feeling worried about the possibility of a shock result like what was observed in Brexit or Trump but we also need to ask how influential have these tactics actually been? Empirical data that shows the extent paid advertising had on voter opinion is scarce. And while these tactics are dangerous, unethical and worrying it neglects to acknowledge the conditions that have given rise to Trump and Brexit have been building for years and are the result of global capitalism in crisis and neoliberalism in complete freefall. Digital campaigns are one thing but we cannot say the conditions that bring about these events are the same. Although, it’s not without trying from the anti-choice side, the ‘join the rebellion’, anti-establishment narrative is designed to stoke similar feelings of resentment among the electorate but the actual material conditions that could give rise to a shock result on the 26th of May run far deeper than empty slogans and clever ad targeting.

For example, the geographical nature of the Brexit vote was no coincidence. The South-East bolstered by London, along with Scotland and Northern Ireland were the only regions to vote remain, with the North and West voting to exit the EU. The strongest Brexit vote came from regions who have been the victims of the harshest economic policies of the neoliberal age: the systematic deindustrialisation of the North and North-West brought about in the late 70s under Thatcher and continued into the 90s under John Major. There was no reprieve when Labour took office in 1997 under Tony Blair. The ‘Blue Labour’ faction of the party merely acted as another enabler of Tory party policy that began 30 years previous. By the time Labour left office in 2010, they shed 1.5 million votes from the Northern regions.

What motivated the UK peoples to vote against the will of all three major political parties and the vast majority of the country’s parliament goes far beyond a targeted social media campaign – even with massive monetary backing. Those who make overarching comparisons using such arguments do so with no social or historical context and to be frank it’s a lazy analysis. These are massively different campaigns and the capacity for them to produce a shock result is also very different.

This is by no means an excuse to be complacent and big questions need to be answered regarding political funding. SIPO exists as an organisation with no power to enforce its own regulations. As well as foreign donations going unchecked, domestic groups have set up proxies to circumvent SIPO. This is clearly seen in the case with Love Both and the Pro Life Campaign, both organisations share the same address however only the Pro Life Campaign are signed up as a third party with SIPO. The Referendum Commission is only established to provide factual information regarding the referendum but plays no part in fact checking on either side.

Facebook have announced that it will no longer be accepting ads relating to the referendum from foreign sources, a step in the right direction but again it’s easy to find a workaround: foreign groups can still transfer funds to an Irish group and they can run ads from their domain - provided they are not registered with SIPO. However, Google’s decision to ban all ads will impact the No Campaign harshly, their reaction to the news and emergency press conference has made for satisfying viewing.  The Transparency Initiative is a commendable effort on the part of volunteers to ensure sponsored posts are tracked and data is collected, without adequate regulation they are again powerless to act.

But the pro-choice campaign as a whole is not powerless to counteract this; the network of volunteers and activists that have been mobilised ahead of the referendum is incredible and cannot be matched by the pro-life campaign. The shift in attitude towards abortion in public, political and private spheres over the last five years alone signifies the power this grassroots campaign holds. It is a power that cannot be bought.

Further reading