Dark Money Investigations: News

Most Northern Irish voters want DUP’s dark money revealed, research suggests

Northern Ireland Electoral Commission calls for powers to publish political donations retrospectively, including DUP’s EU referendum funding

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
2 March 2021, 9.47am
DUP leader Arlene Foster delivers a speech at the party's 2016 conference
Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images

Most Northern Irish voters want to see political donations from 2014 onwards published, according to new research. This includes the controversial £435,000 donation that funded the Democratic Unionist Party’s Brexit campaign in 2016.

A majority of participants of a recent research project conducted by the Northern Ireland Electoral Commission said they wanted information on political donations to be published retrospectively to help improve transparency and accountability.

Political donations in Northern Ireland were kept secret for decades due to security concerns dating back to the Troubles.

In 2017, openDemocracy revealed that the DUP had received almost half a million pounds to campaign for Brexit.

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Legislation allowing for the publication of political donations in Northern Ireland – passed in 2014 – was brought into force in the wake of the revelations about the DUP donation.

But the secretary of state refused calls to backdate the legislation, meaning the identity of the DUP’s Brexit donors remains secret. At the time, the Conservative minority government was dependent on DUP voters for its survival.

The Northern Ireland Office has consistently rebuffed calls to give the Electoral Commission the power to retrospectively publish donations

The Northern Ireland Electoral Commission has repeated calls to be allowed to publish details of donations from 2014 to 2017.

“We continue to call on the UK government to introduce legislation to enable this information to be placed in the public domain, in order to help to improve transparency in the political finance regime and enhance political accountability,” said Cahir Hughes, head of the Northern Ireland Electoral Commission.

“This research shows that there is still interest in donations made during the 2014-17 period, with the majority of respondents saying that they should be made public.”

The Northern Ireland Office has consistently rebuffed calls to give the Electoral Commission the power to retrospectively publish donations.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who spearheaded the original 2014 donor transparency legislation, called on the government to publish details of the DUP’s Brexit donations and other political funding currently hidden from view.

“It is clear from this report, there is a public appetite for open and transparent information on who funds parties. Without that, allegations of corruption and cronyism will remain, damaging the public confidence in the entire political system,” Long told openDemocracy.

“The UK government’s decision to only publish Northern Ireland parties’ donations from July 2017 onwards means big donors between 2014 and 2017 – a period with two Assembly elections, two general elections, a local government election, a European election and the EU referendum – remain hidden.”

It's time to drag Britain’s dangerously outdated political finance rules into the 21st century. Otherwise, ‘dark’, untraceable donations risk becoming the norm

The Electoral Commission qualitative research, conducted in conjunction with the pollster Ipsos MORI, found a high degree of scepticism about political donations among the Northern Irish public.

All donations in Northern Ireland over £7,500 must be declared, as is the case in the rest of the UK. Last year, Sinn Fein received a record £4m in the will of a reclusive English market trader.

But with far less money in Northern Irish politics, many donations are too low to qualify for publication.

The electoral watchdog found “a strong consensus” that “the current donation thresholds are too high as they would allow individuals or businesses to donate a significant sum without being subject to public scrutiny.”

The report found that the reporting threshold “constitutes a loophole within the current regime, leaving it vulnerable to corruption. This caused the majority to believe that the regime is not transparent. Rather, they view it as a regime that is malleable to the desired political and economic ends of the wealthy and powerful.”

“It’s clear that the current rules on reporting donations – drafted in the late 1990s – are not fit for purpose," Dr Jess Garland, director of policy and research at the Electoral Reform Society, said.

“The £500 threshold is a major loophole that leaves the door wide open for abuse, with funders potentially able to split up big donations into smaller ones and hide under the radar. Voters deserve basic transparency over who has steered our political debate, in Northern Ireland and across the UK.

“Even when official figures are released, lax reporting rules mean voters are often little wiser as to how campaigners were targeting their resources, with social media spend often concealed from real scrutiny.

“The government must listen to the consensus that it’s time to drag Britain’s dangerously outdated political finance rules into the 21st century. Otherwise, ‘dark’, untraceable donations risk becoming the norm.”

The DUP has yet to respond to requests for comment.

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