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Expenses controversy raises questions about one of the most secretive funding systems in the democratic world

By Henry McDonald

Published 16/02/2016

Claiming for duck houses, second homes, hotel in-house movies and a certain abstentionist party putting in receipts for nearly £500,000 for second homes in London to a parliament it doesn't sit in: these were the main headline-grabbers of the Westminster expenses scandal back in 2009.

These were the details which infuriated millions across the UK at a time when austerity was biting and the economy was reeling from the global shocks of the financial crash a year earlier.

The brazen way MPs were pushing the "exes envelope" seriously undermined faith in parliamentary institutions and reinforced a widely held belief that many - if not all - politicians were in it for themselves; riding the gravy train at the expense of the taxpayer.

Yet, perhaps we in Northern Ireland shouldn't be so smug or morally superior when it comes to the way some of the politicians we elect constantly to the local Assembly at Stormont conduct themselves.

Alan McQuillan's allegations about a secret body being set up to ignore the decisions of the Assembly's independent financial regulator are worrying. If he is correct, then the entire integrity of the Assembly is going to be seriously damaged.

His allegation that the Assembly plans to replace the independent body with one made up of MLAs should be something that must be resisted by all of the parties represented in the chamber, as it goes against the very concept of transparency in politics.

The Assembly insisted yesterday that the process for MLAs to appeal if they think their expenses are too low is transparent; nor have there been any appeals since 2011. But the controversy raises deeper and more important questions over the overall financing of political parties up on the Hill.

Because, when it comes to party-political funding and secrecy, the big forces of Ulster politics have form.

To their enormous credit, Friends of The Earth and the Green Party have long campaigned for light to be shone into the hidden world of political donations in Northern Ireland.

It is worth remembering that the political parties up on the Hill are the only ones either in the UK or on the island of Ireland which are allowed to keep the names of their financial donors secret.

Of course, it could be argued that this was necessary during the Troubles, when business leaders or wealthy benefactors could find themselves the victims of terrorist attack if they were publicly linked to a unionist or nationalist political party.

But, as Friends of the Earth have countered, we have had an Assembly up and running for nearly a decade in an era of relative peace, far removed from the 24/7 violence of the Troubles.

Add to this the fact that Northern Ireland is also the only part of the UK where parties can still receive donations from foreign sources and you have a political funding system that remains one of the most secretive and closed systems in the democratic world.

Back in 2011 a Life and Times survey found that 77% of people believed that planning decisions were influenced by the donors to political parties, while 88% thought that local politicos did favours for their donors.

Given the covert cloak still cast around funding and the alleged moves to make it even more of a closed shop up at the Assembly, it's no wonder so many ordinary voters here are cynical about their lawmakers.

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