RHI scandal: donor secrecy fosters ‘darkest suspicions’

A handful of wood pellets, the main fuel used in the RHI scheme
A handful of wood pellets, the main fuel used in the RHI scheme

The ongoing blanket ban on finding out who funds the Province’s political parties is “pouring petrol” on an already-heated public debate over the RHI scheme, one campaigner has said.

Niall Bakewell of Friends of the Earth said he has “no doubt” that the scandal will provide a new burst of impetus to try and finally reform the Province’s secretive rules around political donations.

The Alliance Party has already written to the Secretary of State to demand an end to donor secrecy in light of the RHI scandal.

Unlike the rest of the UK, details of such donations are totally hidden in Northern Ireland.

Mr Bakewell said the current status quo “creates a fertile ground for idle speculation, paranoia and mistrust which is fatal to democracy”.

“And when a scandal like this [RHI] comes up, the easy answer is always corruption,” he said.

“Donor transparency rules out an area of potential motive for a political act.

“Once you know who the donors are, and how much was given to whom, then you can rule out your worst and darkest suspicions.”

Whilst the Electoral Commission is required to record donations of £7,500 or more to Northern Irish parties (or £1,500 if given to local party branches or individual candidates), it is simultaneously barred from publishing this information.

The Secretary of State has the power to change this, but has not done so.

However, he would only be able to reveal the details of donations from 2014 onwards; all funding before the start of that year is already guaranteed to be hidden forever.

Friends of the Earth had been demanding an end to donor secrecy since at least 2012, at a time when plans were afoot to transfer decision-making powers about planning applications away from the Department of the Environment and down to the level of local councils (something which happened in spring 2015).

Fears had been raised that, if developers had donated in secret to councillors’ parties, it would give rise to potential corruption when those councillors were deciding upon whether or not to grant planning permission.

The DUP (and other parties) had argued that the Province’s security situation meant donors should not be named, but has now expressed a desire to see Northern Ireland brought in line with Great Britain.

Asked about it this week, the DUP said it was “clear in its support for the introduction of a donations regime as exists in the rest of the UK”, adding that its political rivals were choosing to promote “baseless innuendo rather than work to resolve the real issues around the RHI scheme”.