Belfast Telegraph

'Lack of transparency' over political funding in Northern Ireland attacked

By Suzanne Breen

Alliance leader Naomi Long has said she is deeply disappointed that new rules offering greater transparency on party funding in Northern Ireland won't be backdated to 2014.

It means details of donations made during the 2016 EU referendum campaign will remain secret.

This includes £435,000 handed to the DUP by the 'Constitutional Research Council', despite continuing questions about the origins of the money.

Mrs Long, who secured the original law that paved the way for transparency, said the decision meant allegations of "corruption and cronyism" would keep poisoning public confidence in politics.

She called on other parties to follow the example of Alliance and the Greens and voluntarily publish their large donations from January 2014.

The new measures compel Northern Ireland parties to publish all donations and loans over £7,500 from July 1, 2017.

Labour had argued that they should be backdated to 2014 but the Tories applied a three-line whip to ensure the measures went through by 308 to 261 votes. Labour Shadow Secretary Owen Smith alleged the government was "doing the DUP's dirty work" by moving the date of publication from 2014 to 2017. Theresa May's minority government relies on support from the DUP's 10 MPs.

A DUP spokesman said: "We welcome the increased transparency but we are disappointed that the backdoor on foreign donations which clearly benefits Sinn Fein and the SDLP has not been closed.

"As a matter of accuracy we would point out that all the main Northern Ireland parties, with one exception, were opposed to retrospective disclosure. This was demonstrated when the Secretary of State published party submissions on the matter in July 2017.

"Given we have already taken the voluntarily step of publishing the detail of the Brexit donor no question arises about donor anonymity in this instance."

Unlike the rest of the UK, the identities of party donors in Northern Ireland have historically remained secret due to concerns over security.

The Transparency of Donations & Loans (NI Political Parties) Order 2018 means the Electoral Commission can now publish donation details.

Mrs Long said she was disappointed that donations given to local parties during the last two Assembly elections, two Westminster elections, and a council and European election would all now not be published.

"Others have talked about supporting donor transparency, with some even making commitments in various manifestos, but their actions have failed to live up to their pledges," she said.

"For as long as secrecy remains around donations, allegations of corruption and cronyism will continue to poison public confidence in politics.

"The MPs who voted to keep things secret will have to explain their actions to the public who have little faith in politics to act for the greater good, rather than personal or party interest."

Mrs Long added: "I challenge other parties to do as Alliance and the Green Party already do - publish your large donations voluntarily and do so to the original commencement date of January 2014.

"Only by demonstrating your active commitment to transparency can parties start to rebuild public trust and confidence in politics."

Green Party leader Steven Agnew said he was very disappointed by the House of Commons vote. "It makes a mockery of the notion of transparency that the Tories performed this sleight of hand, apparently in order to provide cover for their friends in the DUP," he said. "People are rightly questioning what kind of deals some of the Northern Ireland parties may have buried and why the UK Government is providing cover for them.

"The people of Northern Ireland urgently need to know who exactly could be working behind the scenes to influence our politicians."

Mr Agnew insisted that "major questions" remained about the donation to the DUP during the EU referendum.

"People need to know what exactly they are voting for and there will never be full transparency until we know who is holding the purse strings," he said.

"The Green Party is leading the way by voluntarily publishing all donations it receives over £500 and has urged all Northern Ireland's political parties to follow its example, but to date none has done so."

Belfast Telegraph

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