Warning shot on political donors
Call to end secrecy on Ulster parties'funding
One of the UK's leading anti-sleaze experts has called for an end to the secrecy surrounding donations received by Northern Ireland's political parties.
Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, described transparency on funding sources as a central element of democracy.
And he urged parties here to begin voluntarily disclosing the names of any financial backers.
Northern Ireland parties were given an exemption seven years ago from UK legislation requiring the declaration of donors' identities.
And while they now have to inform the Electoral Commission about financial contributions, the information is still kept secret from the public.
Under current legislation, this special arrangement will continue until 2010 at the earliest.
Calls for a rethink have been growing in the light of the fact that devolved power has returned to the Stormont Assembly.
Awareness of the anomaly between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK has also been heightened by recent Westminster scandals over non-declared loans and donations through middlemen.
Sir Alistair has been a leading critic of the Labour government on both these controversies.
He told the Belfast Telegraph: "I think transparency about funding of political parties is a central part of our democratic system.
"That's why I've criticised Ministers or Governments or, more recently, the Labour Party, if they haven't been seen to comply with the rules to achieve transparency, whether it's about loans or donations being made through third parties.
"I see no reason why Northern Ireland should have separate arrangements. "
Sir Alistair, who is also a former chairman of the Northern Ireland Parades Commission, said transparency is "absolutely vital" in a situation where politicians are taking decisions that affect people's livelihoods.
"It's not an optional extra. It's absolutely critical to know where the parties get their funding from," he added.
"There is a political consensus in Westminster that transparency is a key element of our democratic system.
"I think the parties in Northern Ireland should voluntarily opt into those arrangements."
The continuing secrecy here has been justified on the grounds that donors could be at risk of intimidation.
Critics argue that this argument is looking increasingly threadbare in the present-day political environment.