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The head of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland, Anne Watt has repeated her demand to the UK government that legislation should be put in place to allow the publication of full details of donations and loans to political parties made since 2014.
The call by Ms Watt was made less than a day after a special committee in Westminster advanced the progress of a new law on political donations in Northern Ireland that will limit full transparency only to funds received after July this year.
By a majority of one, the government effectively succeeded in keeping secret the full details of a £435,000 donation to the DUP that was made during the Brexit referendum in 2016. The majority of the cash was spent on the UK mainland on pro-leave campaigning and included payments to two digital analysis groups currently under investigation by the UK authorities.
The origins and full details of the record DUP donation, were arranged through a former vice-chair of the Scottish Conservatives, Richard Cook, who runs a small Glasgow-based organisation called the Constitutional Research Council (CRC).
The CRC was fined £6,000 by the Electoral Commission in August. However the current law in Northern Ireland protects any details of the fine from being published.
Watt’s demand is deeply embarrassing for the Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, and his junior minister, Chloe Smith. During the heated and often angry debate in Commons committee, Smith claimed the government had consulted the Electoral Commission, fulfilled its statutory obligations and insisted there was “widespread support” among parties in Northern Ireland for no backdating of transparency other than from July 2017.
Although the Commission’s head welcomed the planned new law – that will now be voted on by the full House of Commons soon after the holiday recess – her statement added : “We continue to call on the Secretary of State to put in place the necessary legislation that will allow us to publish details of donations and loans received since January 2014.”
Chloe Smith’s claim of “widespread support” among Northern Ireland parties to limit transparency from only 2017, was challenged by Owen Smith, Labour’s Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary.
Smith quoted recent comments from Sinn Fein that limiting any changes to July 2017 would continue to cover up “the dark money given to the DUP”. He said that with the Alliance Party always in favour of back-dating new transparency rules to 2014, and the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP also not opposed to the three-year back-date, the government were simply “protecting the DUP.”
Smith said that during the recent EU negotiations the DUP had protested at not being treated like the rest of the UK. “Now they want a special status for transparency in Northern Ireland…. this affair stinks,” Smith said. He added the DUP could clear the mess “by telling us where this shady money came from.”
Ben Bradshaw, a cabinet minister in Gordon Brown’s government, and a leading campaigner on transparency, accused the government of being “complicit in this cover-up”. He said if the DUP had nothing to hide, they should “open up” and say where the £435,000 came from.
He told the committee that £282,000 had been spent by the DUP on pro-leave advertising on mainland UK with £32,000 also given to AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica. The two data-mining companies also held lucrative contracts with other pro-Brexit campaigns. Bradshaw said the two companies were under investigation in the UK and USA and therefore there should be concern about the DUP donation.
“The DUP was used by the CRC to funnel money to the leave campaign that to this day keeps the source of that money secret,” Bradshaw said. He added that regardless of the proposed legislation, the government should publish details of why the CRC were fined by the Electoral Commission and what law was broken. He asked Chloe Smith if she had satisfied herself on the source of the DUP donation and whether it had been legal.
He told the committee “There is nothing stopping the minister asking the Electoral Commission about this. She is hiding the true source of this donation and the only conclusion here, is this protects the deal the government has with the DUP.” Bradshaw called the government’s proposed legal change “a shabby little order.”
Chloe Smith accused Bradshaw of “inviting her to commit a criminal offence”, saying, “we do not have access to this information, “ she said.
In often heated exchanges and interruptions by two DUP MPs – Ian Paisley Jnr and Sammy Wilson – who were attending the committee debate but were not eligible to vote, both accused Labour of remaining fixated on the result of the referendum and on failures to address the “millions” Sinn Fein received in foreign donations.
Owen Smith told the committee: “This is nothing to do with views on Brexit, but is about transparency.”
In heated exchanges before the committee vote was taken, Labour’s Jess Phillips accused the government of “conducting a pantomime” .