Newton Emerson: North’s political donations row a bottle of smoke
Results from any further transparency likely to disappoint conspiracy theorists
DUP leader Arlene Foster. The DUP routes all candidate donations via the party, as does Sinn Féin. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images
Pressure is building for more disclosure on political donations in Northern Ireland. A long-standing exemption to the UK’s donor transparency law was lifted two weeks ago by James Brokenshire, the secretary of state.
However, he did not backdate this to 2014 as the law allows.
The media smells a rat and is focusing on a £425,000 donation made last year to the DUP, which was spent on a pro-Brexit ad in a newspaper that circulates only in Britain.
Donor secrecy was apparently used as a conduit for Brexit campaign funds and now the British government stands accused of covering that up. All this pressure is a result of the DUP-Tory deal. The UK spotlight has turned on Northern Ireland politics in a way it never has before – even during the Troubles, which were reported at the time a security story.
The attention has clearly been a shock for the DUP. It thought it could cash a Conservative cheque then return to provincial obscurity. Instead, it is experiencing the same scrutiny any national ruling party could expect. Perhaps nobody in London will shoot you, but the House of Commons and the UK’s national press flaunt levels of ruthlessness and tribalism that would be completely unacceptable in polite Belfast society.
Westminster manoeuvres against the DUP have already delivered NHS-funded abortions in England for Northern Ireland woman. Fear of Westminster manoeuvres seems to have bounced the DUP into taking more responsibility for loyalism – a firmer line against July bonfires was just about detectable this week.
Donor transparency was delivered by independent unionist MP Lady Sylvia Hermon. She submitted a written question to Brokenshire, who acted immediately – the whole thing occurred within a week of the DUP-Tory deal. Such haste, after years of foot-dragging, can best be explained by fear of the new interest in Northern Ireland affairs.
If the intention was to head off further demands for openness, it has not worked.
The opposition and the press sense weakness and believe they can force more disclosure back to 2014. They may be right – but they are likely to find any results disappointing.
A DUP candidate received the largest donation in the records, from a construction firm – but it was only for £5,000
Although political donations have not been made public in Northern Ireland, they have been regulated in line with the rest of the UK since 2007. Parties must demonstrate they have systems in place to establish that donors are permissible and any donation of more than £7,500 must be registered with the electoral commission – which is why there are backdated records to disclose.
These records are probably brief. Sources from multiple parties claim few donations ever exceed the £7,500 threshold, simply because Northern Ireland politics does not operate on that lavish a scale.
We do not have to take their word for it. Last year, Belfast investigative news website the Detail discovered an unlocked door in the system.
Donations to election candidates, as opposed to political parties, are regulated under a separate law and have never been subject to a disclosure exemption. All such donations of more than £50 must be registered with the electoral office, which sends a report to the electoral commission. When the Detail asked for these records for the 2015 Westminster election it discovered that Sinn Féin was wise to the loophole and had routed all candidate donations via the party. The DUP also seemed to have caught on belatedly and started doing the same.
However, the UUP had followed procedure to the letter, revealing that nearly all its donations were in the £100 to £500 range, mainly from a handful of wealthy individuals. The SDLP’s largest donation was a £400 loan from a car dealership. A DUP candidate received the largest donation in the records, from a construction firm – but it was only for £5,000. These are hardly the sort of transactions most people have imagined taking place behind the suspicious veil of donor secrecy.
Security concerns have been the official reason for that secrecy and all parties have played on it, bar Alliance, which lobbied for the 2014 change in the law that permits disclosure back to that year.
Westminster may have the DUP in its sights but the next three largest parties in Northern Ireland have exactly the same view on transparency. The UUP, SDLP and Sinn Féin also oppose backdating, despite criticising Brokenshire for not doing so, until he revealed last week they had lobbied him against it. This is not necessarily because they are hiding anything nefarious – they just know most donors prefer privacy.
The real problem the Detail discovered was unexpected. Two DUP and one SDLP candidate had forgotten to file donations, despite reporting a combined total spend of £70,000 on their campaigns – and the electoral office had not picked up this glaring discrepancy. Across all parties, many donors were identified by only a handwritten surname and initial.
It seems that a decade of secrecy has led to sloppy official record-keeping and oversight, of everyone.
That may well be where the DUP’s Brexit donor story ends.