Veil of secrecy still shrouds NI political donations

The entrance to Parliament Buildings at Stormont
The entrance to Parliament Buildings at Stormont

The general public still cannot know who is bankrolling politics in the Province, almost two years after a law was passed which was meant to shed light on the issue.

The responsibility for allowing transparency around political donations lies with the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, who has had it within her power since March 2014 to alter Northern Ireland’s rules around disclosure.

Political donations are not currently made public because of the potential for intimidation, said the NIO

Political donations are not currently made public because of the potential for intimidation, said the NIO

She has not yet done so, and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has been unable to say when she will.

By now, two years’-worth of donations should be opened to scrutiny, at least in part.

Instead, they remain as shrouded in secrecy as ever – with no timetable for when this will change.

The TUV branded the ongoing secrecy “gravely concerning”, while Friends of the Earth – which has long campaigned for openness on party funding – described the failure to act as “unacceptable”.

There should be no hiding place for any party in respect of funding relationships between the world of business and politics

Jim Allister

It has been argued that revealing identities of donors will make them vulnerable to attack, a claim which has been questioned by those who favour changing the system.

The Secretary of State has previously said her “ultimate goal is full transparency”.

When asked what progress she has made on using her powers to shed light on donations (something which would require her to present a new piece of legislation to Westminster), the NIO responded: “The NIO are committed to ensuring the maximum level of transparency in relation to party funding in Northern Ireland that the security situation allows, but the time is not yet right to move to full transparency, due to ongoing concerns about the potential for donor intimidation.”

The NIO said she wants to present some new legislation “as soon as possible”, adding that when she does, it will “ensure that only the identities of donors are protected; all other details relating to donations and loans will be published – such as the value of the donation, the recipient, when the donation was made and the status of the donor”.

Declan Allison

Declan Allison

The NIO added: “This is very complex legislation, we are still in discussion with the Electoral Commission on finalising the new arrangements.”

Asked when this may happen, a spokeswoman replied: “We’re not yet in a position to provide a firm steer on dates.”

Environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth have been pushing for more transparency for years, suggesting that the planning process in Northern Ireland could be skewed by hidden political donations from developers.

Declan Allison from the group said: “It is unacceptable that the Secretary of State has not lifted the veil on political party donor secrecy.

“Northern Ireland remains one of the few democracies where political funding happens in secret. The Secretary of State’s argument that the security situation warrants secrecy is irrational.

“Every other political activist, from candidates, election agents, and sponsors, through to party staff, canvassers, and conference attendees, all act in the open. Why should donors be any different?

“If voters are to have confidence that politicians are acting in the public interest, and not in the private interest of their donors, then we need full transparency.”

Jim Allister, leader of the TUV (among the most forthright parties in calling for donor secrecy to end) said: “Secrecy surrounding donations to political parties in Northern Ireland is a matter of grave public concern, not least because of the allegations that certain developers and companies have received preferential treatment as a result.

“It only serves either inappropriate relationships or perceptions of such ... There should be no hiding place for any party in respect of funding relationships between the world of business and politics.

“TUV believes there should be full transparency around donations. This will only serve to build confidence in the political system.”

Green Party leader Steven Agnew (whose party publishes details of donations of over £500) said: “Every political decision in NI is open to questions of undue influence from vested interests, with the question of whether or not decisions are made in the public interest or in the interests of party funders going unanswered.”

HOW THE SECRECY WORKS:

The issue of hidden donations dates back to at least the turn of the millennium.

At that time, the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 made sure that details of those who gave more than £5,000 as a donation in any given year to UK parties – or £1,000 to an individual branch or elected member – were reported to the Electoral Commission.

The names of those donors were then published.

This threshold was later increased to £7,500 and £1,500, respectively.

But while it shone a light on the finances of parties on mainland UK, Northern Ireland was not made subject to the same rules.

Later on, the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 was passed.

This required Northern Irish parties to start reporting donations or loans of £7,500 (or £1,500, if given to a local branch or an individual elected representative) to the Electoral Commission. However, even though the commission then began to gather these details, the act instructed that they must not be published.

This was meant to be temporary, but was repeatedly extended.

Then in March 2014 the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 was signed into law by the Queen.

It states that the names of those who donated or loaned money to parties prior to 2014 will remain secret forever.

However, it also allows the Secretary of State to draw up secondary legislation in Westminster which can require the Electoral Commission to publish details of donations and loans received from January 1, 2014, onwards. This could include full names of donors, dates, and the amounts given.

Even if the Secretary of State decides the security situation does not permit full names to be disclosed today, she can at least order the publication of amounts given and dates, and can then specify a time in the future when donor names will be published.

The Electoral Commission itself has backed the idea of greater transparency.

Speaking in 2013, Declan Allison of Friends of the Earth said: “The argument has always been that the time isn’t right. We’re in a Catch 22. The Government won’t act to normalise politics until we have normal politics.”