Northern Ireland is now within days of being able to learn the identities of big-time party donors for the very first time after a crucial piece of law was passed by MPs.
But while the move represents a major step towards transparency in allowing those who fund the Province’s politicians to be publicly named, it has been dubbed “outrageous” by a Labour MP because it is much more limited than many campaigners had hoped for.
Crucially, the new law only covers donors who gave money from July 2017 onwards.
This means it excludes the period when the DUP received a £435,000 donation during the Brexit campaign, which largely ended up being spent on pro-Leave adverts in the London paper Metro.
The DUP had already acknowledged that a body called the Constitutional Research Council had given it the cash – but very little is known about this organisation, and there has been speculation about where its funding stems from.
It is thought that, given the magnitude of this donation to the DUP, the Electoral Commission would have wanted to seek out the ultimate origin of the cash – but since it was received before the July 2017 cut-off date, it is excluded from the donation figures that are now set to be officially released.
It is now up to a Northern Ireland Office minister to sign the order into law.
It is believed it will take effect the day after it is signed, and then, the day after that, the Electoral Commission will publish the first-ever list of Northern Irish political donor names, covering a six-month period from last July.
The earliest this could happen is Friday, but it is more likely to be next week.
The Tories and DUP joined forces en masse on Wednesday to make sure the law passed in its current form.
Owen Smith, Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary, said: “It’s outrageous that the government is refusing to backdate the publication of donations in Northern Ireland to protect the DUP.”
Shortly before the vote, Alliance MLA Naomi Long, one of the main advocates of publishing donors’ names, said there is “no excuse for the government hiding a period which covers Brexit, one local government and one EU election, two general and two Westminster elections, from scrutiny”.
The piece of law MPs voted on – the ‘Transparency of Donations and Loans etc (Northern Ireland Political Parties) Order 2018’ – was drafted last year in response to growing calls to end the blackout surrounding political donations in Northern Ireland.
The vote breakdown shows 297 Conservatives backed passing the order, alongside all 10 DUP MPs, and a single independent MP (Tory Charlie Elphicke who currently has the party whip removed).
Against them were 219 Labour MPs, 29 SNP ones, plus 13 Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, Greens and independents combined.