Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Time to unmask the secret donors who are funding our parties, demand MPs

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers will be called on to conduct a risk inquiry
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers will be called on to conduct a risk inquiry

A Westminster watchdog has demanded moves towards ending the secrecy over funding of political parties in Northern Ireland.

A powerful committee of MPs said withholding the identity of major donors to the Stormont parties is no longer justifiable.

But the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee stopped short of demanding full transparency in the short term.

Instead it backed a new inquiry into the general level of risk to political donors before introducing a more open system.

Under the terms of new legislation, that inquiry would be conducted by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, who would consult with the appropriate security authorities on the matter.

The committee – which includes Northern Ireland MPs David Simpson, Ian Paisley jnr, Alasdair McDonnell and Lady Sylvia Hermon – was examining a series of proposals contained in a new Northern Ireland Bill – among them double-jobbing and the appointment of a future justice minister.

It spent two days at Stormont recently taking evidence from a range of politicians including First Minister Peter Robinson, Ulster Unionist Party boss Mike Nesbitt, and its own member Dr McDonnell in his role as SDLP leader. And now, in their report, MPs have concluded the current position on donations is no longer justified and that from October 2014 all donations over £7,500 in Northern Ireland should be made public – the same rule as in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Committee chairman Laurence Robertson said: "It seems that, with an eye to the security of political donors, Northern Ireland could now begin to move to the same levels of transparency in party funding as in Great Britain."

Their report said the Government should also use new powers to publish anonymised data "with a view to providing a fuller account of political funding in Northern Ireland".

On double jobbing, the NI (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill proposes a ban on any MLA also being an MP, which most parties at Stormont are implementing, but the committee said it should also prevent MLAs also taking a seat in the House of Lords, or the Irish, European and Commonwealth parliaments.

The committee's report said that overall the allocation of ministries should remain proportional to party performance in elections and in future this should include the justice minister, which would allow the position to be taken by the DUP or Sinn Fein.

When the Alliance leader David Ford took up the position, it was on the basis of a cross-community vote in the Assembly rather than the d'Hondt mechanism share-out.

That has resulted, however, in the Alliance Party holding two Executive posts – their other minister is Stephen Farry of employment and learning – while the SDLP and Ulster Unionist only have one each, even though they each have more MLAs.

Background

The public in Northern Ireland has always been ahead of their politicians when it comes to donations to parties. Focus group research carried out by the Electoral Commission several years ago showed "most people" in favour of ending the confidentiality surrounding donations to the parties here. In November 2007, rules came into force which, for the first time, required political parties and representatives in Northern Ireland to report donations and loans to the commission. This information has not been made public, however, because of the security situation in Northern Ireland and the possibility that political donors could be threatened or intimidated.

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