Party donor anonymity continues at Stormont

Declan Allison, from Friends of the Earth, campaigning against the extension of anonymity for party political funders being extended in Northern Ireland
Declan Allison, from Friends of the Earth, campaigning against the extension of anonymity for party political funders being extended in Northern Ireland

A BAN on the identification of those who fund Northern Ireland’s political parties has been extended once again.

With little fanfare or attention, last week Westminster paved the way for all party political donations to remain hidden from public view for at least another year-and-a-half.

The move means it is still legally impossible to find out who privately bankrolls politics in the Province, no matter how rich or powerful those interests are – a situation which is unique in the UK.

In the wake of the move, the News Letter asked all political parties who have successfully fielded MLAs where they stand on this issue.

Out of all those asked, only one – the Green Party – was able to provide the News Letter with named top funders.

The extension of anonymity for political donors has angered one campaign group which has been calling for an end to the ban – Friends of the Earth.

Declan Allison, who has been helping run an anti-secrecy campaign called “Who Pulls the Strings?”, said: “Once again the Government has denied the people of Northern Ireland the fundamental democratic right to know where political parties get their money.

“If we don’t know who funds them, how can we know if politicians are making decisions in the public interest, or in the interests of their donors?

“1.8m UK citizens are being denied the democratic right to make an informed decision at election time.”

The details of donations and who made them are known – but only to the Electoral Commission, which is barred from revealing them.

The order extending anonymity came up in the House of Lords at the end of January.

Called a “statutory instrument”, its name is the Control of Donations and Regulation of Loans etc (Extension of the Prescribed Period) (Northern Ireland) Order 2013.

As the name suggests, it also covers loans to the parties as well as donations.

It then came up in the obscure-sounding Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee where it was introduced by minister for state Mike Penning, who warned donors could be in danger if their identities were revealed, telling MPs who were about to consider the matter: “I am sure that no-one would want to put anyone in a situation of being under threat in any way because they have made a donation to a political party.”

After a 24-minute debate it was referred to the House of Commons.

Then, late in the evening on February 11, it was introduced under the “business without debate” section and the speaker called for “ayes” and “nays”.

There were a couple of “ayes” from the largely-empty chamber, but no “nays”.

Recorded by this reporter on a stopwatch, the time taken by the Commons MPs to approve the order – enshrining secrecy for political donations across all of Northern Ireland – was 12.9 seconds.

However, such a swift passage is common when the motion encounters no stiff opposition.

All this follows proposals to reform the law to allow partial transparency over political donations.

The draft Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill suggests a modification of the existing scheme that would allow the Electoral Commission to publish some information, such as the amount donated.

However, this could also grant a permanent blanket ban on revealing who made donations during the “prescribed period” (that is, the length of time during which such secretive donations have been allowed).

Asked why it wants the details of political donations kept hidden, the Northern Ireland Office said there were two basic reasons.

One was that those who had donated on condition of anonymity in the past would have that stripped from them if the prescribed period were allowed to expire.

The other reason was the possibility of threats and intimidation by paramilitaries.

Its statement read: “First, the identities of those who made donations or loans during the prescribed period – since November 1, 2007 – would be revealed if we were to let the provisions lapse without introducing primary legislation to provide retrospective anonymity.

“The guidance given to donors and lenders at the time they contributed did not make this clear and it would be wrong to release their identities retrospectively, when they had a reasonable expectation at the time the donation or loan was made that this would not be the case.

“Secondly, the general threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. As recent events have shown all too clearly, there remain those who are willing to use violence against individuals, with whose political views they disagree.

“PSNI statistics show that there has also been no general reduction in incidents of violence or intimidation since this matter was last considered in 2010. Indeed, in light of recent events in Belfast, it is highly likely that the overall number of incidents will have increased.”

But Mr Allison said: “The argument has always been that the time isn’t right.

“We’re in a Catch 22. The Government won’t act to normalise politics until we have normal politics.”

He added that the new proposed legislation risked creating a “permanent halfway house”, and said: “Secrecy will become the norm, and fully transparent democracy for Northern Ireland will get kicked into the long grass. If secret donations are unacceptable in the rest of the UK, they are unacceptable in Northern Ireland too.”

Asked for its own views, a spokesman for the Electoral Commission issued this statement: “We want to see the rules on donations and loans to political parties in Northern Ireland amended as soon as possible so that voters can see how parties are funded.

“We welcome the Government’s recent statement that it will bring forward primary legislation (that is, a new permanent bill) to improve the level of transparency. It is important that the legislation promotes transparency as far as possible.”

But it added that the Electoral Commission nonetheless supported this latest extension of anonymity.

“(T)his is being done to provide time for primary legislation to be introduced to improve transparency in the future,” it said.

“It is important that the primary legislation also enables us to publish retrospective details of donations and loans made since 2007, apart from information that would enable donors and lenders to be identified.”