The government has moved to introduce a law aimed at helping to reveal who bankrolls the Province’s parties, within just hours of the secretary of state facing an surge of criticism for his failure to act on the issue.
Politicians and the Electoral Commission alike issued statements on Thursday morning condemning the fact James Brokenshire had still not brought forward planned changes to the rules around political donations, five months after he told fellow MPs he was going to do so.
Ann Watt, head of the Electoral Commission, said that she had today been poised to release the first-ever batch of information about major donors to Northern Ireland parties, but was unable to do so because Mr Brokenshire had not acted.
She said she was “extremely disappointed” about the situation.
“We were consulted by the Northern Ireland Office several months ago on draft legislation and provided detailed comments,” she said.
“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.”
Meanwhile, Alliance leader Naomi Long said “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”.
However, by about 4pm, Mr Brokenshire’s Northern Ireland Office had released a statement which said that it has now “laid a draft order before Parliament to provide for transparency of donations and loans in Northern Ireland”.
It was put forward in the name of Chloe Smith, the under-secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK covered by a blanket ban on revealing the identities of major donors.
Campaigners have for years been lobbying to change the law. In January this year the RHI scandal – and subsequent allegations of possible corruption – reignited the push for donor transparency.
Mr Brokenshire then announced he would consult about changing the law, and the Tories promised in their May manifesto to move “quickly” to “introduce increased transparency”.
Then on July 3 Mr Brokenshire told MPs he would move to bring about “greater transparency around political donations”.
Under existing law, Mr Brokenshire has the power to name all major donors who have 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 – so the previous three-and-a-half years of donations would remain secret, even though they could legally be revealed.
The new proposed law, which will be debated in due course, maintains July 2017 as the start date for revealing donor details.