THE UK Government has moved to lift the ban on naming political donors in Northern Ireland today hours after it faced heavy criticism from the electoral watchdog for failing to do so.
This morning the Electoral Commission issued a strongly worded statement after the government failed to implement the reform, despite a pledge in July by Secretary of State James Brokenshire to end the secrecy over party funding.
The government’s failure was criticised by the leaders of the Alliance Party and the Green Party.
Today the Electoral Commission published information on political donors in Britain, but was unable to publish the first such tranche of information from Northern Ireland as planned.
In a statement released at 9:30am today the head of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland, Ann Watt, said she was “extremely disappointed".
"The continuing secrecy only serves to undermine trust and confidence amongst the public in the democratic process,” she said.
"We were consulted by the Northern Ireland Office several months ago on draft legislation and provided detailed comments. In our view the legislation is ready to be laid in parliament now."
Within hours of the commission going public on the government delay, the Northern Ireland Office has issued a statement saying it had now started the process of changing the legislation at Westminster to end the ban.
It said: “Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chloe Smith MP, has today laid a draft Order before Parliament to provide for transparency of donations and loans in Northern Ireland.
"The draft Order would allow for the publication of all donations and loans received by Northern Ireland political parties and regulated donees on or after 1 July 2017. The draft Order and Explanatory Memorandum, which will now require debate and approval in Parliament."
The issue of political donations dominated the news agenda earlier this year when the DUP voluntarily revealed that the Constitutional Research Council (CRC) had donated £435,000 to the party’s Brexit campaign. The source of the CRC’s money is still unknown.
James Brokenshire had previously committed to bringing forward legislation which would permit the publication of donations of over £7,500.
Speaking in the House of Commons on July 3 2017, Mr Brokenshire said there was a consensus on a need for "greater transparency on political donations" in Northern Ireland.
He said: "In line with the commitment set out in the Conservative Party's Northern Ireland manifesto for the General Election, I can confirm that I intend to bring forward legislation that will provide for the publication of all donations and loans received by Northern Ireland parties on or after the 1st of July 2017."
In a further press release issued by the Northern Ireland Office on July 6 2017 it confirmed that the change in the law would be made by secondary legislation and “enable publication of donor information from the autumn”.
Significantly, however, in a previous interview with The Detail Ms Watt signalled that the government’s reforms on donations may not go far enough.
Setting transparency at a threshold that only covers donations over £7,500 would bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK, but she said there was an argument that as parties in Northern Ireland are much smaller than other parties in Britain there “may be a case to be made for lowering that threshold.”
However, the changes will only affect funds received from 1 July 2017 onwards. The decision not to backdate the publication of donations from before this has also been criticised by some political parties.
A statement from the UK Government was released following the announcement that the donor legislation was being implemented.
It stated: "There remains widespread support for full transparency among the people of Northern Ireland. There has been a welcome recognition by the political parties of the importance of transparency to the broader political process and confidence in the democratic process.
"In line with that aim, we have brought secondary legislation before Parliament that would provide for the publication of all donations and loans received by Northern Ireland parties. This would take effect in respect of donations and loans received on or after 1 July 2017."
Reacting to the latest developments Ann Watt said: “We are pleased that the UK Government has acted to make this important change a reality. Transparency in how our political parties are funded is key to ensuring public trust and confidence in the democratic process. We hope to be able to begin publishing this information early in the New Year.”
The latest developments come as the UK government's Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has refused several Freedom of Information requests by The Detail to release information it holds on Northern Ireland political party donations.
In April this year The Detail sent a Freedom of Information request to the NIO asking for a copy of all files it held including correspondence, emails, letters, memos, minutes of meeting, briefing documents, research or reviews during the previous six months that referred to the issue of political party donations in Northern Ireland.
The NIO responded to say that the request was being declined as it would cost too much to search and compile this information. Over the next few months we sent a number of refined requests to the NIO including asking for only emails containing reference to this issue.
The NIO stated that it would have to search all staff email accounts and the request was therefore still fell outside the cost limit of providing the information and suggested we refine the time period.
In October we sent a further request asking NIO to search email records for one specific day. We asked for all emails and their attachments that the NIO held on July 3 2017 where the phrase “donation” or “donations” appeared in the title of the email record.
In its response NIO said: “This was a busy period in the NIO on the subject of donations during which the Secretary of State announced his intention to bring forward legislation to provide for the future publication of all donations and loans received on or after 1 July 2017.
“Hence, staff across the NIO are likely to have emails which were sent or received on 3 July 2017 where the word ‘donation’ or ‘donations’ appears in the title of the email record. We have sampled staff and the results indicate that a request, even to a targeted group of staff, would exceed the cost limit. Also, with search facilities as powerful as they now are, searches frequently give a very large number of results, many of which are false positives but are still required to be assessed.”
We have asked NIO to internally review its decision not to release the information and a response is expected by December 1 2017.
Click here to read The Detail's previous coverage regarding Northern Ireland political donations.