Brokenshire '˜dragging his heels' on political donors

Criticism has been heaped upon the secretary of state by both politicians and the Electoral Commission over his failure to table a law which would help reveal who bankrolls the Province's parties.

James Brokenshire has come under fire for failing to act on even a watered-down plan to reveal donors
James Brokenshire has come under fire for failing to act on even a watered-down plan to reveal donors

It is now almost five months since James Brokenshire announced to fellow MPs that he would bring legislation before the House of Commons allowing for “greater transparency around political donations”.

However, it appears nothing has happened since.

Now the head of Northern Ireland’s Electoral Commission had said she was primed to publish the first-ever batch of information about major donors to the Province’s parties on Thursday, but was unable to do so as a result of this inaction.

The leaders of both Alliance and the Greens accused Mr Brokenshire of “dragging his heels” on the issue.

Mr Brokenshire’s July 3 announcement came after years of campaigning to change the blackout on identifying donors to political parties in Northern Ireland.

The blanket ban has been said to be in place due to the security situation in the Province. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK to be covered by such a ban.

In January this year, the RHI scandal – and subsequent allegations of possible corruption – reignited the push for donor transparency.

Mr Brokenshire then announced he was going to consult about changing the law, and the Tory manifesto in May contained a promise to move “quickly” to “introduce increased transparency”.

Under existing law, Mr Brokenshire has it within his power to reveal all major donors who had given money since 2014.

But when he announced his plan of action in July, he said the only donors whose identities he is willing to publish are those who gave money from July 2017 onwards – meaning the previous three-and-a-half years of donations would remain secret.

But the fact that he has not even acted upon this commitment prompted Ann Watt, head of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland, to say: “We are extremely disappointed that we are unable to provide the public with the information they expected on how political parties in Northern Ireland are funded.

“The continuing secrecy only serves to undermine trust and confidence amongst the public in the democratic process.

“We were consulted by the Northern Ireland Office several months ago on draft legislation and provided detailed comments.

In our view the legislation is ready to be laid in Parliament now.”

Green leader Steven Agnew said: “With every passing day it becomes more and more difficult to justify why Secretary of State James Brokenshire is dragging his heels on this urgent issue.”

He added that there is public concern about who could be funnelling money to parties “behind the scenes” as a result of a failure to change the law.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said that “local parties cannot hide behind his tardiness – they can start to voluntarily publish immediately, just as Alliance and the Green Party have done for years, and show they are genuinely committed to transparency”.

In January this year Mr Brokenshire said he would formally ask all the parties for their views on the subject.

When the parties’ responses were finally revealed several months later, only one respondent – the Alliance Party – wanted transparency applied to donors who had already given money.