Does law change on NI political donor secrecy go far enough?

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The UK Government is to lift the ban on the secrecy over who funds political parties in Northern Ireland. The Detail's Niall McCracken analyses the likely impact.

JAMES Brokenshire’s plan to lift the ban on naming donors to political parties in Northern Ireland marks the end of an era, but may not deliver the level of transparency the public expects.

The ban came to wider prominence after it emerged that the DUP received a £435,000 donation for its Brexit campaign, but secrecy has affected all political donations in Northern Ireland throughout the modern era.

So the Secretary of State’s announcement marks a seachange but it may be weakened for two key reasons: its failure to provide transparency on the recent past, while a £7,500 cap could ensure that secrecy is maintained in the future.

Legislation will now be brought forward on this issue but it will only cover donations made to political parties from 1st July 2017 onwards.

This means that the Electoral Commission will not be making public any donations given to the parties during the EU referendum campaign or the recent Assembly and Westminster Elections.

In 2014, after a motion brought forward by Alliance leader Naomi Long, Westminster passed a law which stated that from January 2014 onwards donations made to political parties in Northern Ireland could at some point in the future be made public.

This provided the basis for the UK Government to lift the ban when it deemed the security situation in Northern Ireland safe enough to do so.

The official watchdog, the Electoral Commission, is already on the record as saying it believes that information on donations received since January 2014 should be published as soon as practical.

Theresa May’s Conservative government has today failed to do that.

A THRESHOLD ON TRANSPARENCY?

It is significant that James Brokenshire’s announcement brings Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK meaning that donations over £7,500 from a single source to a party will be published.

But when you compare the annual accounts of parties in Northern Ireland with larger parties such as Labour and the Conservatives, it is clear that parties here deal with much less money on an annual basis.

In 2015 the Labour party had an income of £51.2million, while the Conservatives had an income of £41.9million.

In the same year the DUP had an income of £0.5million and Sinn Féin just over £1million.

Given the likelihood that political parties in Northern Ireland are likely to receive small donations it is possible that the £7,500 threshold could continue to maintain secrecy over most donations.

Some political parties in Northern Ireland have already publicly stated that the £7,500 limit may be too high with a target of £500 suggested.

Meanwhile the longstanding claims that the security situation requires a ban on identifying donors are now officially overturned.

That is a major development, even if the principle has been called into question by the government’s own rules for decades.

In February 2016 The Detail revealed a loophole in the law, which since the 1980s, allowed the public to access the identity of donors funding election candidates.

Donors to individual politicians must presumably have faced the same risk of attack or intimidation as those donating to parties, yet the loophole was ignored by the authorities.

It’s important to note that the legislation prevented the Electoral Commission from publishing information on political party donations in Northern Ireland, but it never barred parties from voluntarily making this information public.

In fact the Green Party and Alliance have previously published donor information.

This was further illustrated in February this year when the DUP voluntarily revealed that the Constitutional Research Council (CRC) had donated £435,000 to the party’s Brexit campaign. However the source of the CRC’s money is still unknown.

Following today’s announcement, the Electoral Commission confirmed it will publish information on donors for this year’s third quarter (July, August, September) in November 2017.

This means that for the first time members of the public will be able to search the commission’s website for information on who donated to political parties during this period.

It is possible that journalists might be disappointed with that they find.

While the threshold remains at £7,500 and particularly coming into the quiet summer period, with no Stormont and no elections as yet in sight, it’s possible that donor information may be thin on the ground come November.

Click here to read The Detail's previous coverage on the issue of political donations in Northern Ireland.