Countering the Iona Institute

Limerick man, Jimi Kavanagh has set up the Whyona Institute in an attempt to counter the conservative messages promoted by the Iona Institute. Although, still in its infancy with only two contributors working on its website, the Whyona Institute aims to dispel any misinformation that the Iona Institute promotes.

The Iona Institute and its well-known spokesperson, Breda O’Brien, have been campaigning for a no vote in the Marriage Equality referendum, which is due to take place next week. The Yes campaign has accused the Iona Institute of spreading false information and avoiding the actual issues related to the referendum.

pro same-sex marriage photo
Photographer Conor Phelan uses Iona Institute quotes in his work to promote a yes vote. Photo: Conor Phelan via Facebook

Founder of the Whyona Institute, Jimi Kavanagh, believes Lolek Ltd (he refers to the Iona Institute by its private company name) should not be registered as a charity which can avoid taxes. Last month, Jimi started a campaign on the website to encourage people to send complaints to the Charity Regulatory Authority to raise the issue of the group’s charitable status. In his complaint, he stated: “I am concerned that their actual activities as a political lobbying group mean that they are illegally using their charity status to avoid paying tax, effectively meaning that their political lobbying is being subsidised by the tax payer”. Hundreds of other people also followed suit. However, the regulator gave a generic response citing a lack of resources as the main reason why there will be no investigation into the issue.

The Whyona Institute, which is crowdfunded, raises concerns that are particularly pertinent in the run up to next week’s referendum. Speaking to Jimi Kavanagh as he set up the Whyona Institute’s website, he explained what inspired him to start the campaign, discussed same-sex marriage and gave some of his insights into other social issues. Here’s his interview with HeadStuff:

First of all, who is setting up Whyona Institute and how did the idea come about?
Well, the idea was my own but I think it’s been a long time coming. The progressive side of Irish politics has always lacked a permanent collective. While there’s plenty of liberal organisation when it comes to single issues, there’s virtually no permanent umbrella group (like the Iona institute, or to give them their actual name Lolek Ltd.) that works on building a more inclusive society.

Are there many people involved at the moment?
Well that depends on what you mean by involved, I’ve been amazed by the number of people looking to help out in any form, be it donations to the media fund, sharing on social media, or even just a message to show support.  But the Whyona Institute is very much in its infancy.

How unbalanced do you think debates on social issues are?
When the polls at the start of the year were showing to be 4 to 1 in favour of a yes vote, Lolek Ltd. demanded and achieved inclusion in all discussion of anything to do with same-sex marriage. Why was it necessary for a fringe group of ultra-conservatives to somehow misrepresent themselves as being the balance in the debate? Why were they allowed to completely misrepresent the debate, both in terms of claiming that state marriage and church marriage are the same thing and, more maddeningly, in terms of pretending same-sex marriage is somehow connected to parental rights? I think Lolek Ltd. have been bafflingly allowed reach and exposure far beyond the number of people that actually share their desire to keep Ireland from growing as a society.

You want to counter religious and overseas interest groups, how much of an effect do you think they currently have on social issues?
Well that depends really on how far back you’d like to go. We still live in a country in which not being “Catholic enough” can be a barrier to education for children. Thankfully we’ve made huge strides in the past few decades to address some of the lingering problems we had with church influence in Irish politics in the past. The part that seems to be forgotten through this progress is that it couldn’t have happened without a change in attitude by Irish Catholics. That’s one of many hypocrisies that I frequently hear from Lolek Ltd. members; they claim to somehow represent Irish Catholic views when in fact only a tiny portion of self-identified Catholics are opposed to an egalitarian society. I genuinely don’t believe that the majority of Irish Catholics are opposed to equal legal rights for gay people, or any other group when you get down to it. In fact I’m fairly certain that the majority of Irish people of all faiths, or none, are more interested in a better life for us all than constricting the freedoms of any minority.

What are your hopes for the organisation? What is your plan of action once you get funding?
My biggest hope is that people who are interested in and dedicated to a more inclusive society can share ideas on a common platform, based more on being accessible to everyone than an exclusive society that wishes to return to the days of religious dominance of all discussion. The funding side of things exists solely to allow for media campaigns to promote the ideals of the institute.

Has this been organised specifically to campaign for the same-sex marriage referendum in May, or will you be campaigning on a range of social issues?
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t spurred on by the misinformation around the same-sex marriage debate, but I’d like to build a collective that’s at last discussing other issues too. As per my comments above, single-issue groups are already in full force, but more open groups are few and far between on the progressive side of Irish society.


Photo: William Murphy via Flickr