Belfast Telegraph

Letters 'prove parties paying lip service to transparency on donations'

By Aaron Tinney

The Northern Ireland Office has published a series of letters showing how political parties lobbied the Secretary of State to keep the names of their past political donors secret.

James Brokenshire has said details of future donations are to be published - but declined to make the measure retrospective to the start of 2014.

Only Alliance asked the Northern Ireland Secretary to reveal details of cash gifts made to parties in the last three years.

The party yesterday branded Mr Brokenshire's decision not to reveal donations made since 2014 as shameful.

It said he showed a lack of leadership and has "given in to those with self-interest" by keeping the source of party funds secret. Alliance and the Greens are the only parties in Northern Ireland to publish their donations.

Earlier this week Mr Brokenshire was accused of giving in to pressure from the DUP not to reveal political donations made since 2014.

Seamus Magee, a retired head of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland, which regulates party finances, claimed the deal on donations and loans must have been part of the DUP/Tory pact to prop up Theresa May's Government at Westminster.

But a leaked letter revealed on Wednesday by the Belfast Telegraph showed the other main parties did not support revealing the names of donors since 2014.

Mr Brokenshire wrote to all of the parties asking them if they wanted him to make cash gifts transparent from 2014 to the present.

Yesterday, the NIO published a series of replies the Secretary of State received from party chiefs in response to his letter.

The replies show only Alliance backed retrospective transparency.

Former leader David Ford yesterday accused Mr Brokenshire of offering "feeble excuses" for not using his powers to backdate the new law.

He also slated the other party leaders for spouting "empty words" over the issue.

Unlike the rest of the UK, identities of donors have historically remained secret due to concerns about their security.

But critics are concerned the veil is harming accountability. DUP leader Arlene Foster wrote in reply to Mr Brokenshire's query: "In addition to the more general question of whether to introduce full transparency, we are of the view that legislation to provide for this should apply to those donations and loans received following new legislative provisions taking effect."

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams made no mention of backdating the measure and said it should be done "as soon as possible". He wrote: "Sinn Fein has repeatedly called for the highest levels of transparency in the funding of political parties.

"We have consistently called for an end to the practice of keeping the identity of donors secret and that the threshold for reporting donations should be lowered to £750."

The SDLP said in its letter that it was up to Mr Brokenshire to "set a date after which donations will be published".

Former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt wrote to Mr Brokenshire: "The Ulster Unionist Party has consistently taken the view that we wish to see full transparency and disclosure, the only question being timing. We believe the time is now right to move to introduce transparency.

"Regarding the time from which the change should take effect, we propose the start of financial year 2017/2018."

In its response to Mr Brokenshire, Alliance said making cash gifts public knowledge since 2014 would end accusations of "cronyism and corruption emerging almost daily" about Northern Ireland parties.

Alliance also stressed the DUP's 2016 election manifesto pledged it would publish details of large party donations.

Despite Sinn Fein not setting a date for backdating transparency over donations, the party's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill earlier this week lambasted Mr Brokenshire for taking a "crass" decision, suggesting a side deal between the Tories and the DUP.

The SDLP attacked the decision not to backdate the transparency measure, insisting it had "nothing to hide".

Ulster Unionist MLA Alan Chambers said it had been a "disgraceful cop out on the starting date" - even though his party only wanted transparency to take effect from this year.

Mr Ford said: "These letters show other parties are only paying lip service to transparency and are full of empty words when they say they wish to be fully clear in their dealings.

"Only Alliance, alongside the Green Party, publish our donations voluntarily and we have done for some time.

"There is nothing stopping other parties doing so immediately if they so wished.

"The Secretary of State has a duty to show leadership and stand up for the integrity of local politics.

"He should have noted the opinions of local parties on this issue and then shown that leadership by publishing donations backdated to 2014.

"By not backdating the publication of donations, James Brokenshire has given in and allowed those with self-interest in keeping these details hidden to make the call for him.

"He should be ashamed and the public should ask what those parties have got to hide."

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