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Secrecy over donations to Northern Ireland parties to be investigated

By David Gordon

The UK's anti-sleaze watchdog is to review the secrecy surrounding donations to Northern Ireland political parties, it can be revealed today.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life is planning a far-reaching inquiry into party finance issues later this year.

And its remit will include the fact that voters here do not know who is helping to bankroll parties in power at Stormont.

Transparency requirements on political donors were introduced elsewhere in the UK from 2001.

An exemption from the openness rules was granted to parties here and has been repeatedly extended in the years since.

The continuing secrecy — defended on the basis that donors could face intimidation — is due to expire next March.

But the Northern Ireland Office is currently running a public consultation process on whether it should be extended again.

The Committee on Standards carried out last year's official inquiry into the MP expenses scandal. Its inquiry into the funding of UK political parties is expected to include a hearing in Belfast later this year, when evidence will be heard from a number of invited witnesses.

Other subjects it is likely to tackle include the issue of state funding for parties, and whether donations should be capped at a certain level.

An issues paper detailing all the questions the new inquiry intends to cover is due to be issued next month.

Submissions to the NIO's consultation on donation secrecy can meanwhile be made up to October 25.

Launching the process last week, Northern Ireland Office minister Hugo Swire said: “We all want to see full transparency in politics and on the funding of political parties in particular.

“But I accept there have been real concerns in Northern Ireland about intimidation which has made it difficult to achieve this to date.”

Secret donations to the four main parties in Northern Ireland in 2009 — European election year — added up to some £690,000.

Sinn Fein had the highest total with £462,856, followed by the DUP with £126,211.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life was set up in 1994 following a series of sleaze scandals in British politics.

It is an advisory body to the Government and its chair and other members are appointed by the Prime Minister.

The Committee's report on the MP expenses scandal recommended an end to double-jobbing between Stormont and Westminster by 2011.

The DUP is in the process of ending this practice, but SDLP and Sinn Fein MPs are staying in both roles beyond the proposed 2011 end date.

In its recently-published annual report for 2009/2010, the Committee on Standards said: “We understand that steps are being taken to end the one existing dual mandate in Wales by May 2011.

“The recommended timetable is unlikely to be met in Northern Ireland. But we welcome the commitment fully to phase out dual mandates there by 2015.

“There are currently no dual mandates affecting the Scottish Parliament.”

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