Party funding is once again in the spotlight. But during the ongoing debate about donations to political parties, one important area has received little attention in Great Britain – the lack of donation transparency in Northern Ireland.
The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which established the Electoral Commission, put a legal duty on parties to ensure that any donations they accepted over more than a few hundred pounds come from a permissible source. Parties also have to give the Commission details of all donations and loans they accept.
Over the last decade we have published details on our website of more than 33,000 of these donations and loans in Great Britain. Together, these total over £497m – and all of this information has been available for the public and media to view and scrutinise
In contrast, while we can publish details of expenditure incurred by political parties contesting elections in Northern Ireland (£338,000 last year), we cannot publish any information about where this money came from.
The current rules regulating party finance in Northern Ireland, which prohibit the publication of donor details by the Electoral Commission, were introduced in 2007. The original intention was that this confidentiality requirement would last for three years. In 2010 the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland extended the current arrangements until March 2013, citing concerns around the possible threat of intimidation to donors.
Our public opinion research shows that over six in ten people in Northern Ireland think information about who donates to political parties should be publicly available. Fewer than one in twenty think current confidentiality arrangements should remain.
Sir Christopher Kelly, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has recommended that voters in Northern Ireland be given information about who funds political parties as soon as the political situation permits. The Commission shares this view. We have asked the Secretary of State to publish a timetable that will ensure legislation is in place by March 2013 to allow us to publish information on donations and loans. If at that point the security situation means that there are still well-founded concerns about the intimidation of donors, then the rules could be changed so that we can publish as much information as possible without identifying individual donors. But this should only be a temporary measure.
All the main political parties have expressed support for greater transparency, although they do not agree on the timing. Confidence in the regime will only be achieved if concerns over intimidation and the safety of donors are addressed. It is ultimately a decision for the UK government to assess the current security situation, but this should not be a barrier to addressing what can be done to improve the transparency and openness of party funding in Northern Ireland.
Anna Carragher was appointed Electoral Commissioner for Northern Ireland in January 2012