The cost of getting elected: new questions emerge over political donations in Northern Ireland

INACCURATE information about financial donations to Northern Ireland politicians was submitted to the Electoral Office after the last general election, The Detail can reveal.

We also shed new light on a loophole in the law which allows the public to access the identity of some political donors, despite the widespread perception that such information is kept secret for security reasons.

The Detail used this lesser known legislation to access hundreds of pages of documentation containing data on the campaigns of the 18 successful Westminster candidates from Northern Ireland that were submitted after the election in May 2015.

The forms are intended to show how much each candidate spent on their campaign and where the money came from – including both donations and self-funding.

While it is widely known that donations to political parties in Northern Ireland are kept confidential for fear of identifying donors, legislation dating from 1983 allows access to the identity of those who donate money to individual election candidates.

The paperwork revealed that the 18 winning candidates received at least £150,000 in donations to fund their campaigns, with most coming from their parties, but other amounts shown to have been presented by named individuals and companies.

Our review of the documentation also revealed that the forms for an SDLP candidate and three DUP candidates initially stated that they had received no donations, despite the candidates spending over £70,000 on their campaigns.

Both political parties provided explanations and signalled an intention to amend any inaccurate information.

The form for the SDLP’s successful Foyle candidate, Mark Durkan, stated that he had received no donations but had spent over £20,000 on his campaign.

When we contacted the SDLP about this a spokesperson said there had been a “typographical error” on Mr Durkan’s form and that the party would re-submit the paperwork to show that he had received donations from the party’s Foyle Constituency Council to fund all the costs of his campaign.

Meanwhile the return forms of DUP MPs Nigel Dodds, David Simpson and Gavin Robinson stated that they received no donations during the election campaign despite having a combined spend of almost £50,000.

We asked the DUP for further clarification on whether or not these candidates had received any donations during their election campaign and, if so, how much they received.

The party did not specify the amount of donations the three candidates received but a DUP spokesman said: "Many people have understood the term 'donation' to mean third party donations beyond the party. We will of course comply with all necessary electoral reporting rules."

A DUP source indicated that "payments in some cases which came from the local party's account may not have been accurately recorded as a donation. This was an inadvertent error and steps will be taken to ensure this does not happen in the future."

In a statement to The Detail the Electoral Office confirmed that it did not have any record of updated forms being re-submitted as yet for the three DUP MPs.

DONATIONS - NEW INFORMATION AVAILABLE

In a separate development new details are emerging around discrepancies in the law on identifying donors who are helping to fund politicians in Northern Ireland.

Under current law, the identities of donors to political parties in Northern Ireland are not made public because of fears that they could face attack or intimidation.

However separate legislation that governs elections, including the Westminster elections, means that information on donations made to candidates during an election can be accessed.

The conflicting legislation means it is possible to access the names of dozens of individuals and companies who gave money to candidates during the latest Westminster poll.

The information obtained by The Detail, while raising queries about the level of donations received by some candidates, also revealed that:

  • The 18 winning candidates collectively spent over £200,000 on their campaigns;
  • The amount of donations received by individual candidates ranged from £4,000 to over £20,000. Overall the 18 successful Westminster candidates from Northern Ireland received over £150,000 in donations.
  • Sinn Féin candidates received the most donations with over £48,000 donated in total to its four successful Westminster candidates. All donations were made by the party to its individual candidates.
  • The largest single donation by a political party to an individual candidate was over £21,000 from the SDLP’s Foyle Constituency Council to Mark Durkan MP.
  • The majority of donations were made by political parties to their own candidates but almost £20,000 was made by private individuals and companies and a further £10,000 was donated by candidates to themselves;
  • The largest single donation from a private company was £5,000 from a construction firm to a DUP candidate;

There is no allegation of wrongdoing against any of the individuals or companies who made donations to the election candidates, or against the candidates themselves.

The discrepancy in the legislation allows the public to access the identity of donors to candidates in elections, but continues to protect the identity of those who donate directly to parties.

The documents obtained by The Detail reveal the full names of some donors, but only partially identifies other donors. This depends on how the political parties involved completed the forms.

Given the partial nature of the information, The Detail believes that in the interests of balance, it cannot publish the identities of some donors and only partly identify others.

The Detail is also acting on legal advice regarding the discrepancy in the legislation covering donations.

However head of the Electoral Commission, Ann Watt, believes the information we have published today adds substantially to the debate around political donations in Northern Ireland.

She told The Detail: “We continue to press for more openness and we believe information about donations should be made public. It’s important for people’s confidence in the democratic process and in politics generally that there should be transparency about who is funding political parties.

“I think it’s helpful that there is some form of scrutiny of it because it airs some of these issues out in the open.”

WHAT INFORMATION IS AVAILABLE ON POLITICAL DONATIONS?

The Detail analysed hundreds of documents that outline details of candidates' spend and donations

The Detail analysed hundreds of documents that outline details of candidates' spend and donations

Currently, donations over £7,500 from a single source to a political party are made public in the rest of the UK.

However in Northern Ireland the information is not published due to concerns about the security risk.

The information is forwarded to the Electoral Commission but remains confidential.

However, while this relates to donations to parties, the donations given to election candidates from those parties are governed by a different set of less well known rules around elections that are set out in completely different legislation that dates back to 1983.

It states that anyone standing for election must provide information on donations they received over £50 to the chief electoral officer.

This information, including the names of members of the public and companies who have donated to candidates, is publicly available though this has remained largely unknown.

When contacted by The Detail, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) confirmed the existence of the discrepancy, saying that while donations to parties are confidential: "There are no equivalent restrictions on the publication of information about donations made to (for example) electoral candidates."

The NIO said: "While prevention of donor intimidation is an important objective, there are clearly strong transparency arguments against making the restrictions on publication of information wider than absolutely necessary, and previous policy makers will have taken a judgement at the time of introducing legislation on where the security/transparency balance lay in relation to these different groups."

The NIO added: "The Government is committed to ensuring the maximum level of transparency that the security situation allows."

Funding and expenditure reported for all 18 successful Westminster candidates is shown in the table below.

FUNDING CAMPAIGNS

The table outlines information on the 18 successful Westminster candidates from Northern Ireland during the May 2015 elections. There is no accusation of wrongdoing in connection with any of the information listed in the table.

The Detail analysed hundreds of pages of documentation that contained information on the campaigns of the 18 successful Westminster election candidates from May 2015.

While documentation on all candidates during the most recent Westminster election is available, The Detail obtained information on the 18 election winners as a representative sample.

Eight DUP, four Sinn Féin, three SDLP, two UUP and one independent candidate were elected as MPs during the election.

The electoral return forms contain in-depth information on how much each candidate spent, as well as a breakdown of individual donations. Click here to download the spreadsheet compiled by The Detail on each succesful candidates' spend.

While the bulk of donations received by candidates were from their own political parties, almost £20,000 was donated by private companies and individuals.

We contacted each political party to verify that that the information presented on the electoral return forms was correct.

The DUP’s David Simpson and Nigel Dodds' forms stated that they received no donations despite their campaigns having a combined cost of almost £35,000.

Meanwhile Gavin Robinson’s form stated that while he self-donated £2,500, he received no other donations but spent over £14,000 on his campaign.

In a statement to The Detail a spokesperson for the DUP said: "The majority of our candidates will self-fund campaigns and if donations are received they will be small amounts from individual party members and supporters.

“The only other donations which usually arise are a contribution to the campaign from the local party association. This money will also have been raised by local fundraising efforts.

“We have indicated previously that we support a move towards greater transparency in political donations but we are mindful of the terrorist threat which does still exist. If there are anomalies in the law we would examine carefully any proposals to deal with this."

From the information that the winning DUP candidates did include on their original forms, the bulk of donations were from the party’s various constituency offices, though there were donations from individuals and companies.

One DUP candidate received £5,000 from a construction firm and a further £5,000 was donated by a member of the public on the same day.

There is no allegation of wrongdoing in connection with these donations, or any of those listed in the documentation.

The form for the SDLP’s successful Foyle candidate, Mark Durkan, also initially read that he had received no donations despite spending over £20,000 on his campaign.

When we contacted the SDLP about this matter the party confirmed that the money Mr Durkan spent on his campaign had been donated by the party’s Foyle Constituency Council and that an oversight had led to this not being included on his electoral return.

A spokesperson for the party said: “A typographical error was previously made on Mark Durkan’s spend return which has now been clarified with the relevant officials and corrected.”

The majority of the donations to SDLP candidates were made by the party, apart from the loan of a car to one candidate by a car dealership that was valued at £400.

A spokesperson for the SDLP said while it supported the principle of transparency in the funding of political parties it felt there was a continued need to protect the names of donors against “the context of a continued campaign of dissident violence”.

Collectively the UUP’s two successful candidates, Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan received over £23,000 in donations.

The bulk of donations were made to the candidates by the party.

The UUP contributed over £3,500 to Danny Kinahan’s campaign in South Antrim and in Fermanagh South Tyrone Tom Elliott received £13,730 from the Fermanagh South Tyrone Constituency Unionist Association.

The remainder of the donations to the two UUP candidates were made by private individuals, including several listed as holding titles such as lord and lady, with amounts varying from £100 to £500.

In a statement to The Detail the UUP said it was satisfied that the information its candidates provided to Electoral Office accurately reflected the donations they received.

When asked about the current policy of only making donations to election candidates publicly accessible and not overall donations to political parties, a spokesperson for the UUP said: “We very much regret that the political environment in Northern Ireland is such that political donations to local parties cannot currently be treated the same as in the rest of the United Kingdom.

“We very much hope that the security situation normalises to the point where the openness and transparency which is the norm with regard to political donations in other parts of the United Kingdom, is also possible here.”

Meanwhile successful Sinn Féin candidates received over £48,000 in donations. All donations were made from party constituency offices to the four elected Sinn Féin MPs.

In a statement to The Detail Sinn Féin said: “At election time it is Sinn Féin as a political party that finances its candidates directly. Our candidates receive no other donations directly.”

A spokesperson for Sinn Féin said it was in favour of “full disclosure, openness and transparency in the use of public funds by political parties and representatives”.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, has the power to lift the current overall ban on identifying donors to political parties in Northern Ireland.

We asked her office to comment on the apparent contradiction that the UK government cites possible intimidation of donors to political parties as the reason for the ban, while information on donors to election candidates are available to the public.

In a statement to The Detail the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) said its policy was to promote as much transparency around donations as possible.

FUTURE TRANSPARENCY

Head of the Electoral Commission Ann Watt explains what information is available on donations in Northern Ireland

The transparency of political donations in Northern Ireland has been the subject of much debate in recent years.

Head of the Electoral Commission Ann Watt acknowledges that there is confusion over what information on political donations is available to the public and what isn’t.

She said: “In Northern Ireland you have a situation where on the one hand the Government has made a judgment that it is not appropriate for information on donors to political parties to be made public. But on the other hand information on donors to party candidates during elections is readily available.

“There obviously is a difference because you’re dealing with two different pieces of legislation with two different sets of rules. I agree that this difference may be confusing but our position remains the same that we are pushing for greater transparency across the board and things are beginning to change.”

In 2014 Westminster passed a law that stated that from January 2014 onwards donations made to political parties in Northern Ireland could at some point in the future be made public.

However the Northern Ireland Miscellaneous Provisions Act (2014) stated that this would not happen until the UK Government judged it is safe to do so.

In a statement to The Detail a spokesperson for the NIO said: “At present the Government’s focus is on bringing forward secondary legislation to improve transparency, using the powers given to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the 2014 legislation.

“This secondary legislation will ensure that only the identities of donors to Northern Ireland recipients 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. We see this as an important next step towards full transparency.”

However Ann Watt says that the Electoral Commission’s overall objective is still full transparency around political donations in Northern Ireland.

She said: “Ultimately it is about who is funding and influencing politicians and political parties here and therefore having more transparency around what decisions are being made and why they are being made.”

Additional research carried out by Lindsay Fergus and Shane Ó Curraighín.