New laws are to be brought in to lift the veil of secrecy cloaking political donations in Northern Ireland.
Westminster will publish legislation in February aimed at making the process more transparent, the Government said yesterday.
Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, the identity of Northern Ireland’s political donors is kept secret because of perceived |security fears.
However, the arrangement has been strongly criticised, with campaigns mounted by the Alliance Party and Friends of the Earth to change the law.
Northern Ireland Minister Mike Penning revealed the Government's plans in an answer to a Parliamentary question from Labour’s Vernon Coaker.
Mr Penning said: “I believe that there is room to increase the transparency of the donations and loans regime without compromising the security of individuals or businesses. This requires the introduction of primary legislation to allow the current arrangements to be amended. I hope to publish a draft of such legislation by early February.”
Ministers intend to extend the current “prescribed period”, which prevents donors’ names from
being published. It is due to expire on February 28 and will be extended to allow the new legislation to be introduced. The draft legislation will come into force in the next Parliamentary session, which begins in May.
Precise details of how far the Government is prepared to go on the issue have not been revealed. But it is unlikely to see Northern Ireland adopt the same standards as the rest of the UK.
Yesterday Mr Penning told the Belfast Telegraph: “We will get as close as we can to normalisation.”
In England, details of people and organisations giving £7,500 or more are published in the Electoral Commission. Anything short of parity would disappoint Friends of the Earth, which claims a lack of openness in the political funding process means there is no accountability in key planning and environmental decisions.
James Orr of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland said: “At the moment you can walk into a minister’s office, hand over £10,000 and get a decision in your favour and nobody would know anything about it.
“The same standard as the rest of the UK is the absolute basic minimum we should be asking for at the moment.”
Labour welcomed yesterday’s announcement. Mr Coaker said: “It's a crucial part of ensuring public confidence in politics and our democratic system.”
A list of donors is held by the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland, but it is obliged to keep their identities secret. If the ‘prescribed period’ were to elapse, the identities of historic donors could be retrospectively published. Some parties are still keen to ensure anonymity, fearing people will not engage in politics if they fear for their safety.