Money and politics

Mon, Jun 4, 2012, 01:00

ONLY A single donation of €6,348 – from a member of the public not directly involved in politics – was disclosed to the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) last year, when political parties spent many millions of euro on a general election. It represented, in the crudest fashion, the contempt in which the Irish political establishment has held the laws and the structures that were devised to hold them to account. In spite of investigations by tribunals and a loss of public confidence in the political system, old ways and unacceptable values were still applied.

The manner in which political parties have hidden their sources of funding has been a long-running scandal. After the 2007 general election, Sipo complained that of the estimated €12 million spent on the election by the political parties, only €2 million could be traced. At that time, fewer than 20 donations exceeded the formal disclosure threshold. It was worse during the 2011 general election when the number of identified donors dropped to five, including four politicians. The reason was that, in soliciting funds, political parties advised likely donors that amounts above a certain limit had to be publicly disclosed.

The State provides direct funding to political parties under the electoral Acts and by way of party leaders’ allowances. Last year, these subventions exceeded €12 million. The money cannot be spent on elections or referendums, but on the development and running of the various parties. Election spending is, however, funded by the State through a recoupment scheme under which candidates who receive at least one-quarter of a quota can claim a maximum refund of nearly €9,000. This subsidy provides the only official indication of amounts spent. Actual expenditure would be many times greater.

That is about to change. Late last year, Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan introduced legislation to reduce the size of donations that can be made to political parties and politicians without formal disclosure. He also agreed that details of the income and expenditure of political parties should be audited in future and published by Sipo. The legislation will also require political parties to select 30 per cent of female candidates or risk losing State funding. Whatever about the benefits of ensuring a better gender balance in the Dáil, the need for transparency and accountability in relation to political funding and party accounts has never been greater.

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