The Iona Institute is a socially conservative Roman Catholic advocacy group, sometimes described as a Catholic pressure group, based in Ireland. Founded by columnist David Quinn, it was launched publicly in 2007.
Iona promotes conservative Christian values and opposes abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and civil partnerships. It takes the view that crime is rising, family breakdown is increasing, and that drug abuse and other social problems are caused by fewer people obtaining opposite-sex marriages and participating in organised religion. Since its foundation the group has released a number of reports in support of its aims, it also hosts talks relating to the issues it campaigns on.
Its members (described as "patrons") are the psychiatrist Patricia Casey, columnist Breda O'Brien, and Roman Catholic priest and theologian Vincent Twomey, Anglican bishop the Rt. Rev. Ken Clarke. Dr. Angelo Bottone serves as a part-time research officer for the Institute.
"The Iona Institute" is a trading name of Lolek Ltd, a private limited company incorporated in Ireland in August 2006. Whereas "Institute" is a restricted term in the UK, it is not in Ireland. Graham Norton commented, "Everyone knows the use of the word ‘institute’ is just a feeble attempt to give themselves a veneer of considered intellectual respectability." David Norris referred to "the so-called Iona Institute" as "an unelected, unrepresentative group of reactionary, right-wing, religiously motivated people".
Iona is commonly described as Catholic, though its spokespeople deny this. In 2013, Patricia Casey denied it was specifically Catholic or Christian, saying "We support the role of religion in society but we're not a religiously-based organisation." In 2014, John Murray said that the Church of Ireland bishop Ken Clarke's becoming a patron proved Iona's stances were "not specific to any particular Christian denomination."
Iona is a registered charity, in the category of "advancement of religion". David Norris said "It is the most ideologically driven group I have come across and it is not a charity. I would be very interested to know how it receives charitable status for such a campaigning political group?"
Opponents argued that Iona's activities were political and that it was therefore legally required to register with the Standards in Public Office Commission, which monitors political donations. It did not do so until the middle of the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum campaign, explaining its change of policy was because it wanted to "play a fuller part" in the campaign.
The Iona Institute promotes heterosexual marriage and opposes the extension of the right to marry to same-sex couples. The group previously opposed the introduction of civil partnerships. The group says that children do best when raised by a mother and father, citing a study by Douglas Allen and others published in the journal Demography in 2012. This position has been challenged by groups such as the American Psychological Association, whose stated position is that "the evidence to date suggests that home environments provided by lesbian and gay parents are as likely as those provided by heterosexual parents to support and enable children’s psychosocial growth". The Iona Institute has been accused of misrepresenting the research which underpins its position opposing same-sex marriage. The group was also criticised for invalid interpretations of data to back its claims.
In December 2012 the group released a video on YouTube saying that marriage can only be between a man and a woman and that blocking gay couples from marriage was not discrimination. The video gained notoriety after the institute's YouTube account was temporarily suspended. Its director, David Quinn, alleged censorship. The video was subsequently parodied by activists in favour of same-sex marriage.
On 13 May 2015, in the run up to Ireland's same-sex marriage referendum held on 22 May 2015, Irish historian John A Murphy, wrote to The Irish Times. In his letter, he described the constitutional amendment, which permitted same sex marriage and extended constitutional protection to families based on such marriages, as "grotesque nonsense." Following this, Iona Director, David Quinn tweeted "Proposed change to marriage 'grotesque nonsense'. ...Great letter by Prof John A Murphy in @IrishTimes today." Quinn was criticised for this tweet by LGBT rights activist Panti, who wrote: "I can think of lots of things that are grotesque. Extending constitutional protection to all families is not one of them. ...I would call it 'fair', 'reasonable', 'compassionate', 'considerate', 'respectful', or even 'the very least we can do'. But not 'grotesque.'"
Marital breakdown claimsEdit
An Iona Institute report called "The Fragmenting Family" drew heavily on data from Census 2006 and said that between 1986 and 2006 marital breakdown in Ireland rose by 500%. However, the report was criticised by Fergus Finlay because it used figures from the 1986 census (before divorce was legalised in Ireland), and that the figures actually suggest that marriage breakdown had been slowing down since the 1990s. A 2010 report by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) states that "[t]he evidence suggests no significant upward shift in marital breakdown as a result of the advent of divorce in 1997".
Submission to the Constitutional ConventionEdit
In its submission to the Constitutional Convention, in opposition to same-sex marriage the group cited a 2002 study conducted by the American non-governmental organisation Child Trends. In its submission, the organisation summarised the report stating that "Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage…". Issues were subsequently raised in the Irish Senate as to the accuracy of the report and a response by Carol Emig, president of Child Trends, wrote to the convention and stated that "This Child Trends brief summarizes research conducted prior to 2002, when neither same-sex parents nor adopted parents were identified in large national surveys. Therefore, no conclusions can be drawn from this research about the well-being of children raised by same-sex partners or adoptive parents."
In 2007 the Institute issued a policy document entitled Tax Individualisation: Time for a Critical Treatment which criticised the government's policy of tax individualisation for married couples as favoring women who choose to work over those who stay at home. The document claimed that families where only one parent stayed at home were discriminated against by the current tax individualisation policy.
In May 2011, the group hosted a conference entitled "Women, home and work: Towards a policy that’s fair to all families", which highlighted the social policies that it says unfairly discriminate in favour of working women over mothers who wish to spend some or all of their working lives at home with their children.
In March 2009, the organisation commissioned a survey by polling company Red C which showed that only 47% of the population wished to send their children to a Roman Catholic school.
Religious freedom and discrimination against gays and atheistsEdit
At an April 2008 conference, the Iona Institute highlighted a posited move by the European Union, which would require Ireland to scrap Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 2000. Section 37 allows government-funded religious schools and hospitals to discriminate against any employee on any basis except gender if having the employee is "undermining the religious ethos" of the institution. David Quinn, the director of the institute, said that removing the discrimination exemption "could impact very severely on the freedom of action of faith-based schools". This section has been opposed by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation since its introduction.
The Iona institute also believes that employees should not be required to act against their Catholic beliefs by employers. For example, in April 2010, the group supported the stance taken by Dr Phil Boyle, a fertility doctor based in Galway, who will only provide fertility treatment to married couples because of his Catholic beliefs.
In September 2019, David Quinn and Maria Steen wrote opinion pieces in national newspapers questioning climate change activists and their refusal to consider the economic impacts of climate change activism on its own. Steen compared some activists to a pagan cult.
Reception and impactEdit
In an article in The Irish Times by Kathy Sheridan on same-sex marriage, the group was described as being "blessed with extremely high-profile members with priceless multimedia platforms" and "'very, very engaged' with politicians".
In an interview in Hot Press magazine, comedian Graham Norton said "I'm actually glad ... the Iona Institute exists. The great thing about extremists is that they drag everyone towards the centre."
RTÉ payment controversy (aka "Pantigate")Edit
On 11 January 2014, the Iona Institute said it was defamed when accused of homophobia by the performer and gay rights activist Rory O'Neill in an interview on the Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) Saturday Night Show. A payment of roughly €85,000 was made by RTÉ to the Iona Institute and John Waters as part of an out of court agreement. All the litigants from the Iona Institute rejected a right of reply in favour of the payment. Breda O'Brien described a right of reply offer as "completely inadequate". RTÉ's TV director said "Senior counsel was consulted and confirmed that the legal position was far from clear."
The payment caused a controversy, with the Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte, and Senators David Norris and Ivana Bacik demanding the reasoning for the payment and in the region of 2000 people attended a protest at the payment. Senator Averil Power said seeking "to completely censor somebody else’s viewpoint by resorting to solicitors’ letters is ridiculous". MEP Paul Murphy said RTÉ's actions were censorship, and further described it as a "real attack on the freedom of speech". Senator Rónán Mullen said that the payments by RTÉ “were a welcome development in the cause of promoting a civil debate."
In a Dáil discussion on the issue, TDs, John Lyons, Jerry Buttimer, Michael Colreavy, Clare Daly, Luke Flanagan, Mick Wallace and Catherine Murphy also criticised the payment. The Index on Censorship commented on the incident, saying "If the Catholic right was more confident in its arguments, it wouldn't attempt to censor the other side". The Taoiseach Enda Kenny said to Buttimer that he had no plans to make RTÉ "directly accountable" to the Dáil over the payments.
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