Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Ulster party donors set to remain secret

Intimidation 'is still a possibility'

The identity of donors to Northern Ireland's political parties is set to remain secret for at least another three years.

A new monitoring system is expected to give the Electoral Commission access to the parties data on their donors - but it is understood the information will not be made public.

Despite the return of devolution and increasing consolidation of the peace process, the Government appears to have accepted that donors in the province could still be subjected to intimidation.

It is believed more transparent arrangements could be brought in by 2010 - yet even then the Secretary of State will have the power to retain the new system for a further two years.

The province's parties have already been given repeated exemptions for more than five years compared to their counterparts in Great Britain, where new arrangements came into force in 2000.

The Government backtracked on plans to force the Ulster parties to reveal their financial backers, agreeing they needed more time, a ruling re-affirmed by then Direct Rule Minister John Spellar in 2004.

There have been allegations that some of the parties do not want their donors to be revealed because they give very large sums.

But there are concerns that the lack of tranparency means the influence wielded on parties by donors whose confidentiality will remain intact cannot be detected.

The Commission is understood to regard the new system as a significant step forward but, while the scheme was being drawn up and its underpinning legislation went thorugh Parliament, argued for full tranparency.

It is understood the Commission can only publish the details of a donation if it comes from an illegal source or an unidentified donor.

And in another key difference with the system in Britain, a legal loophole means that loans to the parties will not be regulated.

Sinn Fein, the DUP, Ulster Unionists, SDLP, Alliance and the other parties will, it is understood, be required to make quarterly reports to the Commission.

It is also understood the parties will be required to return donations which come from impermissable or unidentifiable sources.

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