Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Secrecy over who's donating to Northern Ireland's political parties may end next year

Alliance party Deputy Leader and East Belfast MP Naomi Long

Anyone giving major donations to Northern Ireland political parties after next January should be told that their identity is likely to be made public.

The proposals have been made in a letter from Alliance MP Naomi Long to Prime Minister David Cameron, his deputy Nick Clegg and Labour leader David Miliband. The idea is backed by the Electoral Commission and all the Northern Ireland parties with sitting MPs at Westminster.

Ms Long (below), MP for East Belfast, sent the letter as the Electoral Commission published the latest figures for party political funding here. The commission collects full details of donations, but is only allowed to publish overall figures with no names and no statistical breakdown.

Ms Long originally put this proposal as an amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill in the Commons. It was defeated, but was supported by MPs from the DUP and SDLP as well as Lady Hermon, who represents North Down as an independent.

Northern Ireland is the only area of the UK where political donations are secret. Elsewhere the names of donors giving more than £7,500 are published but here they are kept secret on security grounds. The position will be reviewed by the Secretary of State in October 2014.

If the change is accepted in the Lords it will give donors fair warning that their names could be made public in the future. "If we are to progress towards maximum transparency then the way to do that is to start now and say that everything given from January will be subject to publication," she said. "There is a perception that politics operates for the benefit of the few rather than the many and that political donations influence how parties behave. Whether that is true or whether it is just perception it is damaging to political confidence in politics and politicians," Ms Long said.

The Alliance Party publishes its accounts online and she urged other parties to do the same.

The limited accounts published yesterday by the Electoral Commission provide an overview of party finance but leave most questions unanswered.

They show that the two unionist parties have taken in more money than they paid out in the last year, but their nationalist counterparts are, in business terms, trading at a loss.

The DUP took in £479, 360 but didn't spend £185,452 of it. In the case of the UUP the surplus was less, just £15,347 on an income of £381,404. There will be local government and European elections next year, probably a General Election in 2015 and a Stormont election in 2016, so it is prudent management to build up a war chest to help cover the outlay.

That is a luxury nationalist parties don't have. The SDLP was £13,445 in the red, although its income was up from £157,000 to £338,177 year on year.

Sinn Fein was once again the biggest earner, taking in £1,090,792, but it still ran at a loss of £63,868. Its huge income comes mainly from a levy on elected representatives. The accounts reveal it paid £161,680 in legal fees, up £7,630 on the previous year.

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