Chocolate trust’s long road to a bitter destination
It has funded a charity that employed alleged republican terrorists and a pressure group that defends suspected Islamist jihadists. Has the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust lost its moral compass?
Cash also went to an organisation that was later accused of vicious antisemitism and to a racial justice charity that attacked a Labour MP for highlighting the shared ethnic heritage of many members of child sex-grooming gangs.
Times change and values move with them. The wealthy Quaker trust was founded in 1904 by Joseph Rowntree, the York-based chocolate manufacturer. His philanthropy, characterised by one historian as a philosophy of “benign paternalism”, led to a focus in the trust’s early years on adult education, alleviating poverty and promoting temperance. More than a hundred years later, the trust says that it continues to uphold “the traditional Quaker values of justice, equality, integrity, transparency and peace”. All trustees are members of the Religious Society of Friends.
The 21st century trust, which has a £217 million investment portfolio and awards grants with a total value of £5 million to £6 million annually, views itself as a “progressive organisation committed to radical change for a better world”. It has acknowledged that its zeal for social reform and addressing “existing power imbalances in society” leads the trust to “take risks and deal with difficult and contentious issues”.
Critics argue that in certain cases those risks have been too great, the causes it supports too controversial to satisfy Rowntree’s stipulation that his trustees should seek out the “underlying causes of weakness or evil in the community”.
Supporting racial justice or peace-building in Northern Ireland may seem uncontentious, but all charitable trusts are required to “carry out appropriate due diligence on organisations applying for grants”. That guidance is from the Charity Commission, which investigated the Rowntree trust in 2015 over its £305,000 grant to Cage, a human rights group that described Mohammed Emwazi, the murderer nicknamed Jihadi John who beheaded people for Islamic State, as a “beautiful young man”.
The regulator identified that “improvements to the [Rowntree] charity’s processes and procedures were needed to ensure robust scrutiny and control of funds”.
It is holding a separate inquiry into Just Yorkshire, a racial justice charity that has received more than £550,000 from the trust. In March it published a report that accused the Rotherham MP, Sarah Champion, of acting like a “neo-fascist murderer”. Her crime was to condemn the sexual abuse of girls by groups of British Pakistani men. The commission says it is examining “some of the charity’s activities and trustees’ decision-making”.
The Times revealed today that the Rowntree organisation has given £385,000 since 2012 to a Belfast charity with close ties to the suspected leaders of a dissident republican terrorist group that rejected the peace process and until last year carried out gun and bomb attacks on police and military targets.
The offices of the charity, Conflict Resolution Services Ireland (CRSI), have twice been raided by counterterrorist police. One employee lost his job in 2015 after he was charged with directing terrorism. Another was jailed in 2012 for a botched attempt to knee-cap a teenager.
A month ago The Times also reported the trust’s award of £275,000 to another Belfast republican charity, Teach na Failte. Its offices were raided this year by police investigating sex-trafficking and “paramilitary-style attacks”.
The Quaker trust is one of CRSI’s two main funders. It told The Times that its work in Northern Ireland supported “organisations committed to tackling the legacy of conflict-related violence”. The republican charities it has chosen to fund have close ties to hard-left political movements that preach the gospel of Marxist revolution. They are the Republican Network for Unity (CRSI) and the Irish Republican Socialist Party (Teach na Failte).
The Rowntree trust’s grants officer for its Northern Ireland programme, Sophie Long, is an academic from a unionist background. She comes from the other side of Ulster’s sectarian divide but describes herself as a progressive socialist. Until last year she was communications director of the left-wing Progressive Unionist Party, which is closely aligned to a loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force. The trust says that it rejects all violence. Ms Long has said she aspires to “a society of equals, free from violence”.
“Radical chic” was a term coined by the American author Tom Wolfe to describe the frisson felt by socialites and celebrities who associated themselves with radical political causes in the Sixties and Seventies.
A source close to the Charity Commission, reflecting on its dealings with the Rowntree trust over Cage, was unsure of the trustees’ motives in supporting such a group but said they “came across as very self-righteous”.
“They didn’t display the characteristics you would hope to see in charity trustees, of kindness, compassion or humility. Undoubtedly there are many good causes they support but in some cases they cross an obvious line of common sense and decency. Joseph Rowntree would be spinning in his grave.”
The charities regulator has asked the trust to “explain and justify” its funding decisions in Northern Ireland.