Belfast Telegraph

Why questions over DUP financing could come back to haunt Sinn Fein

A truly transparent system of party funding can only exist when there is a total ban on foreign donations

By Henry McDonald

So, the veil of secrecy over who funds political parties that organise in Northern Ireland has finally been lifted. James Brokenshire's decision on Monday to force all of the Stormont parties to reveal who helps finance them will be welcomed by all those who have campaigned for decades for political transparency.

Indeed, one of the organisations who deserves the plaudits for plugging away at this issue is Friends of the Earth in Northern Ireland. The environmental campaign group has been to the fore in fighting to shine a light on who stumps up cash for political parties.

In part, it did so over concerns environmental and planning decisions here could be influenced both at local government and devolved government levels by wealthy developers, who wielded political influence via their chequebooks and bulging bank accounts.

The end of the funding secrecy regime was coloured by the fact that it won't be retrospective, which means that disclosure only applies to donations after July 1 - despite this society having gone through two General Elections, an Assembly election and, of course, the EU referendum in recent years.

The latter campaign, of course, was marked by controversy over the Democratic Unionists' use of the mysterious donation of £425,000 in the Battle of Brexit.

The party spent £282,000 on a pro-Brexit advertisement on a wraparound cover of the Metro newspaper, which did not appear anywhere in Northern Ireland. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson later revealed that a little-known pro-Union group, the Constitutional Research Council (CRC), had donated the cash.

After the Tory minority Government (propped up, of course, by the DUP) announced that it was not going to ask parties to publish what they spent during the last election and Brexit campaigns, critics cried foul.

There have been allegations that the Government's decision not to backdate the donor revelations is one of the secret elements of that deal between the Tories and the DUP which put Theresa May back into Downing Street.

Even the former head of the Electoral Commission, Seamus Magee, tweeted: "The deal on party donations and loans must be part of the DUP/Conservative deal. No other explanation."

Sir Jeffrey himself retorted that he had "no particular difficulty" if the donor list was backdated all the way, say, to 2014.

In the interests of full disclosure and openness, that backdating should start today and let's see who helped the DUP financially in the last three years and, in particular, that Brexit referendum.

Interestingly, he also brought a new element into the whole debate over who funds the war-chests of our political parties. Donaldson said the DUP would be pressing for the money Sinn Fein brought up from the Irish Republic to fund the party to be made wholly transparent.

It seems that this demand could become a new addition to the DUP's own "shopping list" as it horse-trades with Sinn Fein at the Stormont Castle talks, which are now likely to be re-run in the autumn.

The media centre for the talks process at Stormont Castle is the Glass House, which is/was an appropriate place for politicians to step up to speak to journalists during the negotiations.

Because, in the case of complaining about who funds the DUP, some of these politicians are in danger of throwing stones in the glass house themselves.

A truly transparent, open and fair system of party political funding can only exist in Northern Ireland when there is a total ban on donations from foreign sources of income. And the political party that talks so much about integrity and openness is the one which benefits most from foreign donors filling its coffers - Sinn Fein.

It is a little-known fact in the media across the Irish Sea that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where the ban on foreign donations to political parties does not pertain.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act was introduced by the-then Labour government in 2008, and was aimed at outlawing political donations from foreigners.

This means that oil-rich Saudi princes and Russian oligarchs cannot exercise political influence over the parties they would like to fund.

However, when New Labour brought in this legislation it was careful to exclude Northern Ireland from this law - in large part because Blair, Brown and a succession of secretaries of state sought to placate Sinn Fein.

The sums Sinn Fein gains from foreign donations are staggering and puts it at a massive advantage not only over its rivals in the north, but also its competitors in the south.

Between 1994 and 2014, the party raised more than €10 million from its supporters in Friends of Sinn Fein - most notably in the United States.

US Department of Justice figures show that it was not just individual multi-millionaire donors like Chuck Feeney (giving around €700,000), but also American trade unions and extremely wealthy Irish-American New York construction companies.

Even Donald Trump turned up at a Sinn Fein fundraiser in 1995 with the future US president shaking hands with Gerry Adams at the $200-per-head event at a Manhattan hotel.

Although foreigners are claimed to have exercised influence over the election that elevated Trump to the White House (ie the Russians), there is an official ban even in the United States on foreign donors funding the Republicans, or the Democrats.

In fact, in 2012, the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutional ban on foreign companies making contributions to influence US elections.

If the Tories were truly serious about radically reforming the way political parties are funded then they would extend Labour's original legislation to Northern Ireland.

It would, of course, be hard to police while foreign donors have the right to send money across the Atlantic to any of the parties represented in the Dail.

Perhaps if Theresa May and Leo Varadkar wanted to demonstrate a progressive example of Anglo-Irish co-operation they could ban foreign donations on both sides of the border.

We read and hear a lot of donor secrecy in relation to local democracy, but next to nothing about the extent to which foreigners who don't live here, whether they be Holywood stars, or billionaire businessmen, can indirectly influence the shape of politics here.

Perhaps when the talks resume again in the autumn and we are all back stuck in the Glass House someone from one of the parties could ask for foreign donations to be put onto that part of the agenda concerned with ­reforming the entire architecture of the Executive and the Assembly.

If they succeed, then we will have less stone-throwing over democratic accountability and transparency anywhere near the Glass House.

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