The failure to create more transparent rules around political donations for Northern Ireland’s incoming councillors has been branded “a deliberately missed opportunity”.
TUV leader Jim Allister yesterday joined in with criticism of the new arrangements, which it has been said could help fuel corruption (see right).
As reported on Saturday, the Code of Conduct for councillors on the new superauthorities contains no demand for them to declare political donations from developers.
Mr Allister said: “If their party has benefitted, that should not be concealed, yet present arrangements permit it to be concealed...
“It’s a deliberately missed opportunity to bring transparency where transparency is much needed.
“It leaves one wondering what it is some parties are so anxious to conceal.”
Unlike anywhere else in the UK, those who give money to Northern Irish political parties are not obliged to reveal publicly either their identities or the amounts which they have given.
Concerns about such arrangements have been aired for years by the News Letter, but the advent of the new supercouncils could have provided a way to shine a light on such secret cash gifts, by forcing councillors to declare party donations which might affect their judgement when it comes to deciding planning applications.
However, although councillors must declare any financial or personal connections to matters being discussed at council, the Department of the Environment (DoE) said it will be left up to each individual to decide whether or not to declare donations made to their parties.
It said: “The code does not make specific reference to party donations. It is a councillor’s responsibility to determine whether any of their interests have relevance to any council proceedings.”
It also said that political donations are a matter for the Northern Ireland Office.
In 2006, an act was passed in Westminster requiring Northern Irish parties to report donations of £7,500-plus to the Electoral Commission (or £1,500 if to a local branch).
However, the Commission does not make this information public, and opportunities to end this anonymity have been repeatedly passed over by politicians.
It has been claimed that withdrawing this blanket of secrecy could leave donors vulnerable to intimidation or attack.
Soon 11 new superauthorities will replace the Province’s old 26 councils for good, and decisions on planning applications will be handed to councillors on these new authorities.
Previously, planning decisions were largely left to DoE officials.
The Green Party’s John Barry said the present rules for the new councillors do not remove “the potential for people to corrupt and bypass the system”.
And on Sunday Jim Allister said the new powers the councillors will soon have at their disposal meant it had been “imperative” to change the situation whereby developers can fund parties secretly, saying: “It’s now more concerning than it’s ever been.”
When the News Letter covered the donor secrecy story in 2013, the TUV and Greens had been perhaps the most stridently in favour of ending anonymity of all the parties asked.