Concerns that details of NI political donations not back-dated

The government is facing the potential for a new crisis in its relationship with the DUP after a surprising decision to retain some secrecy over political donations in Northern Ireland.

Tuesday, 4th July 2017, 8:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th September 2017, 11:31 am
David Ford accused James Brokenshire of making 'feeble excuses' on party donations

Over recent years, there has been considerable public debate about the fact that Northern Ireland – allegedly due to security concerns – remained the last part of the UK in which huge donations can be made to political parties without the donor being named.

In the midst of the ‘cash for ash’ scandal in December, Secretary of State James Brokenshire indicated that he would be moving to end donor secrecy, and the Conservative manifesto said that “a Conservative government will introduce increased transparency of political donations” in NI.

This afternoon, Mr Brokenshire told the Commons that he would be bringing forward legislation to end the anomaly.

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However, one crucial detail – on which Mr Brokenshire did not elaborate in his statement – surprised some observers who have followed the debate closely.

He referred to ending secrecy around donations from July 2017. However, the change was not back-dated.

A law already on the statute book – thanks to an amendment by the then Alliance MP Naomi Long in 2013 – means that since 2014 every person who has donated to a party in Northern Ireland has known that at some point their name could be revealed.

The understanding in Northern Ireland had been that whenever a decision was made that the security situation meant donor secrecy could end then those people would be identified.

Tonight a former head of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland – one of a handful of people who have seen the details of donations to every party in the Province – raised concerns about what had happened.

Writing on Twitter, Seamus Magee – who retired in 2014 – said: “The deal on party donations and loans must be part of the DUP/Conservative deal. No other explanation.”

He added: “Every party in Northern Ireland understood that the publication of political donations over £7,500 was to be retrospective to Jan 2014.”

When asked why Mr Brokenshire had not back-dated the change, a spokeswoman for the NIO said: “We do not believe it is right or fair to impose retrospective regulations or conditions on people who donated in good faith in accordance with the rules as set out in law at the time.”

In a statement, the Electoral Commission welcomed Mr Brokenshire’s move to transparency over donations but said that “we would also like to see the necessary legislation put in place, as soon as possible, to allow us to publish details of donations and loans received since January 2014”.

Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael said that “the House has already expressed its view on this” and agreed to back-date publication of donor names. He asked Mr Brokenshire why he had not back-dated the end of the secrecy veil.

Responding, Mr Brokenshire said it was “about compliance with the regulations ... rather than retrospection” but that MPs would be able to debate the issue fully when he brings forward legislation.

Former Alliance leader David Ford accused Mr Brokenshire of offering “feeble excuses” for not making the publication retrospective.

Over recent months the DUP has faced myriad questions about the ultimate source of a donation of more than £400,000 which was made to it for the Brexit campaign but spent in Great Britain rather than in NI.

Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP said he welcomed the Secretary of State’s statement on donations but queried one aspect of it.

In supporting the announcement, he asked: “Will this extend to include donations that are routed via the Republic of Ireland to poltical parties in Northern Ireland?”

Mr Brokenshire answered that “they will reamin under consideration”.

Later at the Commons, Sammy Wilson put further pressure on the Secretary of State to include donations from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland parties among disclosed political donations.