Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Donor anonymity ending: Big handouts to Northern Ireland political parties could be publicised

Alliance party Deputy Leader and East Belfast MP Naomi Long
Alliance party Deputy Leader and East Belfast MP Naomi Long

Anyone giving donations of £7,500-plus to Northern Ireland parties after next January will be told that their names may be made public.

The change, which has been included by Government as an amendment to its Northern Ireland Miscellaneous Provisions Bill, is a result of relentless lobbying by Naomi Long, the Alliance MP for East Belfast.

But Sinn Fein dismissed it as a "hollow victory" because it only covers donations of over £7,500, and does not guarantee the name will be disclosed.

The amendment will mean that any donation of £7,500 or over from a single source to a political party from January 2014 will be subject to publication at the point when the Secretary of State determines whether the security situation permits the current exception for Northern Ireland to end.

The next review of this current exemption is due in October 2014.

Ms Long said: "This is the first step towards making the political donations process more transparent.

"I am extremely pleased that we have won the argument on this issue with the Government."

She hailed it as "a great victory for improving democracy and transparency in Northern Ireland".

She added that the Government-backed amendment "ensures that from January 2014, parties, donors and the public will know that those donations will eventually be published and scrutinised, which should help build confidence going forward".

"Permanent anonymity for donors will be at an end," she stated.

At present, the anonymity of donors is protected for fear they would be targeted by terrorists who oppose their political views.

But it is argued that the public has a right to know who is bankrolling politicians to ensure there is no undue influence.

Ms Long's own offices have recently come under attack but her party still publishes details of donors on its website.

She said: "I do not believe that security concerns should automatically outweigh the right of the public to see this information."

However, Caitriona Ruane, whose Sinn Fein party also publishes donations, felt the move didn't go far enough and dubbed it a "hollow victory".

"While any move towards openness in the political system is welcome, ensuring donations to political parties of over £7,500 will eventually be published does not allow for an adequate level of transparency," she said.

BACKGROUND

Northern Ireland is the only area of the UK where details of political donations over £7,500 are not published on the Electoral Commission website. Although the Commission gets the details it is prohibited from publishing them on security grounds. Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, is currently reviewing this exemption going forward into 2014.

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