Belfast Telegraph

Who’s bankrolling Northern Ireland parties?

Political watchdog urges openness as row engulfs Tories

By Amanda Poole

There have been fresh calls for greater openness about donations to political parties in Northern Ireland in the wake of the Tory cash-for-access row.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where all identities of donors to political parties are kept secret.

The situation has been blamed on the potential threat from paramilitary groups still active here.

On Monday night Cahir Hughes from the Electoral Commission said the political watchdog believes Northern Ireland should be brought into line with the rest of the UK, where donations above £7,500 are made public.

Mr Hughes said there is considerable public appetite for transparency regarding donations to political parties here, with a recent survey suggesting 62% of people are in favour of full disclosure.

“We do believe in full transparency in Northern Ireland,” Mr Hughes said.

“But, ultimately it’s a decision for the Government.

“A recent public opinion survey showed the majority of people think full transparency is the way forward.

“A total of 62% wanted full transparency, one in 10 thought full confidentiality should remain, and the rest didn’t mind either way.”

The main political parties in Northern Ireland have a variety of views on revealing donors’ identities.

A DUP spokesman said it supports the maximum possible transparency in party funding arrangements, but is mindful of the particular security circumstances of Northern Ireland.

He added: “Currently in the province those wishing to contribute financially to a political party in Northern Ireland can do so in the knowledge that the details of donations will remain confidential with the Electoral Commission.

“The commission investigates whether donations have been lawfully made, and where this is not the case it will publish details of donations or loans from impermissible sources.

“Unfortunately, there is still a significant likelihood at this time that increasing exposure of donors’ identities in Northern Ireland would cause individuals and organisations to withdraw support from political parties on account of the risk of intimidation or an adverse impact on their livelihood.”

The spokesman added that the DUP opposes the “anomaly” that currently exists in Northern Ireland permitting political parties here to be funded by foreign citizens and organisations — something which primarily benefits Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein’s Pat Doherty said his party also wants an end to the practice of secret donations —and for the £7,500 threshold for reportable individual donations to be lowered to just £500.

He added: “Justifiable public cynicism is generated when it is perceived that political parties are not being open and transparent about their financial affairs.

“Vested interests being allowed to secretly contribute to political parties does a disservice to politics in general. It is a practice which needs to be brought to an end. Sinn Fein does not receive any corporate donations.

“Sinn Fein and those who vote for us expect the highest standards from all of our public representatives. Sinn Fein will continue to act in an open and transparent manner with regards to our financial affairs.”

A spokesman for the Ulster Unionist Party said it is “in favour of retaining limited disclosure, as the dissident threat is still significant”.

He added: “We want to move toward a normal system, but at the moment some people would have genuine fear for their business if this information was disclosed.”

An SDLP spokeswoman said: “We generally are in favour of donations being published. However, at this time we believe there is still a security risk.”

An Alliance Party spokesman said it wants Northern Ireland to be on a par with the rest of the UK.

Background

Donations to UK political parties are regulated by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. All UK parties must report donations over £7,500 to the Electoral Commission, which makes the information public. However, Northern Ireland is the only UK region where all donor identities are kept secret. It is also the only region where parties are allowed to obtain funding from abroad.

Only public scrutiny and full transparency can guard against abuses

By Liam Clarke

When it comes to transparency of political donations, Northern Ireland is the UK and Ireland’s political black hole.

Local parties cite security fears to conceal their donors from public scrutiny. Elsewhere all but the smallest political donations have to be published online by the Electoral Commission.

Here the commission is told about who gives what but can’t share the knowledge with us.

The argument is that it is still felt that revealing the names of party donors would expose them to terrorist attack. At a time when politicians are not being targeted for attack, this seems unlikely.

Another local rule is that parties here are allowed to raise finance from Irish companies and citizens abroad, a right denied to UK parties. Here the main, but not the only, beneficiary of foreign fund-raising is Sinn Fein.

According to the Electoral Commission, the party raised £1.2m last year. A good deal of this was probably from contributions from its elected representatives, who pay their money into a central party pot and are given allowances in return. That is what we think, but there is no transparency. However, next year new rules for MLAs pay specify that they will have to be paid individually as part of an audit trail introduced by the commission on Assembly pay. That is a small step forward but the question is whether property developers, industrialists and Government contractors are paying parties in the hope to influencing policy.

During the ‘Irisgate’ affair Peter Robinson confirmed that at least two property developers were personal friends and had supported the party. Nothing improper emerged, but public scrutiny and full transparency is the main way to guard against abuse.

The DUP has been relatively open about charging small amounts for access to one of its ministers. At the last party conference guests could pay £50-a-head for a buffet lunch with Edwin Poots. It happens at Civil Service level too.

Next month would-be Government contractors can pay up to £12,000 at “relationship building” event in the Waterfront Hall.

Again, nothing improper is suggested, and the event is being held openly. It is a requirement of democracy that, with firms prepared to pay for access, the same degree of transparency should be extended to party funding.

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