Erstwhile Alliance leader David Ford has accused rival parties of paying mere “lip service” to the idea of donor transparency, after their official responses to the notion of lifting the blackout on donors’ identities were revealed.
After having sought the views of all political parties on the subject back in January, Secretary of State James Brokenshire on Thursday published all the responses they sent him.
These indicate that the Alliance Party (which already names its big donors) had gone further than the others in demanding public access to donors’ details.
It was alone in specifying that the names of those who gave major political donations in the last three years should be published – prompting Mr Ford to say the other major parties are merely voicing “empty words” when they claim to want transparency.
He suggested that if they are truly committed to openness, they can simply publish the information voluntarily right away instead of waiting for a change in the law.
Thursday’s developments came after Mr Brokenshire announced on Monday he will move to end the current blackout on the identities of political donors in the Province.
However, he will continue to keep details of all donors between January 2014 and July this year hidden, even though he has the power to ensure they are revealed.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where the identities of people who give big donations to parties and candidates are kept totally hidden.
The argument advanced to support this is that donors could be attacked if they were known.
In January, when Mr Brokenshire requested parties’ views on the idea of publishing the names of donors, he specifically asked when they felt such a move should take effect.
In a letter summarising all the parties’ views, published on Thursday, Mr Brokenshire wrote: “All parties that responded expressed the view that full transparency should be introduced...
“Only the Alliance Party proposed that transparency should be implemented retrospectively [that is, backdated to 2014 – the maximum the law allows].”
In its own response, the UUP had suggested the date of April 1, 2017.
The DUP indicated donors should be named from the date when any new law is passed.
And the SDLP said simply that it was up to Mr Brokenshire to decide on a date.
Sinn Fein’s response however had been vague; it only said the party wanted “the highest levels of transparency” and “the move towards transparency of political donations and loans in the north should happen as soon as possible”.
It did not actually specify on what date any new transparent arrangements should take effect. Despite this, Sinn Fein issued a statement on Monday saying donors’ identities from 2014 onwards should be revealed, and that Mr Brokenshire had not gone “far enough”.
In a statement on Thursday, David Ford said: “These letters show other parties are only paying lip service to transparency and are full of empty words when they say they wish to be fully clear in their dealings.
“Only Alliance, alongside the Green Party, publish our donations voluntarily and we have done for some time.
“There is nothing stopping other parties doing so immediately if they so wished.”
At present, Northern Irish parties must report donations or loans of £7,500-plus (or £1,500, if given to a local branch or an individual elected representative) to the Electoral Commission. However, the commission is prohibited from publishing them – a measure which was supposed to be temporary but which has been repeatedly extended.