A fresh demand has been made to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding Northern Irish political donations in the wake of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal.
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long has written to the secretary of state calling on him to move to reform the law following suggestions of possible corruption around the debacle.
Mrs Long said it was “intolerable” that Northern Ireland is the sole part of the UK where major donors’ identities are not known.
In the meantime, she called on the DUP – whose leader Arlene Foster was in charge of the Department for Enterprise Trade and Investment (DETI) in 2012 when the RHI scheme began – to voluntarily publish donor names.
The DUP has previously said that whilst it supported transparency in principle, Northern Ireland’s security situation could leave donors at risk if they are named.
However, in its 2016 manifesto the party declared that the time is now right to bring the Province’s donor law in line with the rest of the UK.
The DUP hit back at the Alliance on Sunday, accusing them of “baseless innuendo”.
‘CONSPIRACY VERSUS COCK-UP’:
At a heated sitting of the Assembly to discuss the RHI scandal on December 19, MLAs of various parties said the whole fiasco not only appeared to have been the product of incompetence, but that it could potentially have involved corruption too.
At that time, Alliance MLA Steven Farry had told the Assembly that the lists of RHI recipients and the lists of DUP donors should both be revealed so people can make “a full comparison”.
“Everything may be perfectly innocent,” he said.
“But that important information should be out there in the public interest.”
At the moment, those who give £7,500-plus to party headquarters’, or £1,500-plus to candidates or branch offices, have their donations recorded by the Electoral Commission – but it cannot publish them.
Northern Irish law states that the identities of all who gave money before 2014 (covering the time the RHI scheme was set up) will remain secret forever.
However, the secretary of state James Brokenshire does have the power to reveal details of donors who have contributed since then.
Mrs Long told the News Letter: “Ultimately he [Mr Brokenshire] has to take the decision to lift that.
“In saying that, it is in the DUP manifesto, clearly stated, that they support an end of donor secrecy.”
Therefore, she said, the DUP could just publish the names of donors itself – at least ones going back to the start of 2014.
She said if a full judge-led inquiry was launched it might demand even older records of DUP donors as part of the probe (although these might not necessarily be made public).
She added: “Regardless of whether the secretary of state sees urgency in this, I think the public see a need.
“I think ultimately the public want to be able to have trust and confidence their politicians are acting on their behalf, and not on behalf of special interests or individuals, or party interests.
“The only way we’re going to prove that is the case is by publishing donors.”
In the absence of full transparency, people may “veer towards conspiracy, rather than cock up” when assessing how the RHI catastrophe was allowed to unfold.
NO RESPONSE FROM SECRETARY OF STATE:
The DUP has said that it is not within the party’s gift to facilitate a comparison between donors and RHI recipients.
It said: “The DUP is not privy to the list of applicants to the RHI scheme.
“The Department for the Economy has written to all successful applicants seeking their consent to publish details.
“We hope that all those who receive such letters will respond positively and would expect that people who support all political parties and none would be included within it.
“The party is clear in its support for the introduction of a donations regime as exists in the rest of the UK.
“It is easier for political opponents, however, to engage in baseless innuendo rather than work to resolve the real issues around the RHI scheme.”
The News Letter put it to the party that, even in the absence of a change in the law in Northern Ireland, it can still choose to make donor details available.
It did not directly address this point in its response.
Mrs Long said that she had received an acknowledgement of her letter from the secretary of state, but no details of what – if anything – he plans to do.
The News Letter had also asked what the secretary of state planned to do, but has received no response from the Northern Ireland Office at time of writing.
Responding to attacks in the Assembly last month, Arlene Foster said “wild claims and allegations” were being made about RHI.
She acknowledged “shocking errors and failures” in the scheme, adding that “I accept responsibility for the work of the department during my time at DETI”.
However, she stressed she has “nothing to hide” in relation to the scheme.
The RHI scheme was shut to new applicants from February 2016, following a surge in demand.
It paid out subsidies to users for every kilowatt of heat energy generated, but had offered extremely generous terms – including a rate of subsidy which was higher than the cost of the fuel, thereby giving people an incentive to waste fuel (even though such usage is deemed ineligible under the scheme’s rules).
According to an estimate publicised by the Sinn Fein finance minister last week (based on an as-yet unpublished accountants’ report), over half of people whose boilers were inspected used the scheme in an ineligible way.
He estimated that the cost of the flawed and overspending RHI scheme to Northern Ireland taxpayers could be up to £600m over 20 years.