Ian Paisley Junior. Image, alchetron.com
On Monday, for the first time in history, the Electoral Commission released information on donations to political parties in Northern Ireland.
While all major political donations in the rest of the UK have been public since 2000, yesterday’s data release marks the first modicum of transparency for Northern Irish politics.
The Electoral Commission’s disclosure comes after a long-awaited change in the law in Northern Ireland – and after additional pressure for transparency was triggered by openDemocracy’s revelation that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had taken a controversial £435,000 donation for its Brexit campaign. The source of that money is still a secret, because the UK government reneged on its previous commitment to publish details of donations from January 2014 onwards.
But the data – which only goes back to July 2017 – does include some interesting details.
By far the biggest source of funding for Northern Irish parties over the six months to the end of 2017 was public money. However, there have been a couple of notable private donations.
Democratic Unionist Party
The DUP’s North Antrim branch was given £4,999 by a firm called Gross Hill Properties Ltd.
Gross Hill Properties is owned by property developer Michael Gross and Danielle Beissah Katri, according to Companies House. Both are registered at an address in Gibraltar, and were listed in the Panama Papers as a beneficiary of the Danzig International Consultancy Group, registered in the British Virgin Islands. On the phone, Mr Gross confirmed to openDemocracy that he owns the company, though he was unclear about whether it was based in the British Virgin Islands or Panama.
“There is nothing wrong with being based in the Virgin Islands”, Mr Gross said, pointing out that Richard Branson owns one of the islands.
Speaking to openDemocracy, Mr Gross confirmed that he is British, but said that he has no taxable income in the UK and has been “non resident and non-domicile in the UK for nearly a quarter of a century”. Threatening to sue us if we publish publicly available data about his businesses, Mr Gross said it was none of our business how he runs his affairs, and that “I have the best accountant in England”.
North Antrim is represented by DUP MP Ian Paisley, son of the Rev Dr Ian Paisley, founder of the party. Ian Paisley Junior is known for describing same sex marriage as "immoral, offensive and obnoxious", and for resigning as a Northern Irish minister in 2008 when it transpired that he was also being paid to be a researcher for his father, the then Northern Irish First Minister.
Mr Gross said he had given the donation because Paisley is “someone who I have known a long time and like, and agree with on most things” and that, like Paisley, he supports Brexit.
Gross Hill Properties, which gave the donation, pays tax in the UK and is entitled to donate to UK parties. There is no allegation that Mr Gross, Gross Hill Properties Ltd, or anyone else involved in the case has broken any laws. Mr Gross pointed out that his firms had received loans from British banks, who do “the most rigorous KYC”, he said, referring to “know your customer” checks. “All that banks do is spend time with compliance. It’s the biggest bore in history, but it’s necessary”.
“My companies that trade in the UK pay tax in the UK. And I’m a major giver to charities on top of that.”
John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network said “This is what I call ‘representation without taxation’: the ability of multimillionaires and billionaires to support politicians who back their radical agenda whilst using offshore structures to avoid paying tax in the UK.”
All of the DUP's remaining registered donations came from public bodies. This includes ‘short money’ that opposition parties receive from the House of Commons to support their MPs; party funding from the Northern Irish Assembly; and a ‘policy development grant’ of £100,000 from the Electoral Commission.
In total, the party has received £292,000 of registered donations since July last year.
Sinn Féin’s branch in Northern Ireland has received £331,000 since July 2017. Like the DUP, most of this comes from the Northern Irish Assembly. The party’s own Assembly Members and MEP contribute the rest of the funds themselves.
Parties in Northern Ireland are permitted to receive donations from Irish citizens – an exemption from the usual rule disqualifying anyone other than UK citizens from donating to parties in the UK. Rival parties have often expressed concern that Sinn Féin receives large amounts of money from Irish Americans. However, none of the donors registered to Sinn Féin since July have ticked the “Irish donor” box, meaning all are eligible to vote in UK elections (although many may hold dual citizenship).
The smaller parties…
The only donation to the SDLP (beyond official sources) is a councillor who resigned from the party in February amidst sexual assault claims. The Ulster Unionist Party and Traditional Unionist Voice received no donations other than those from official sources.
The Alliance Party is listed as receiving a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. People Before Profit has received regular donations from its own Assembly Member, Gerry Carroll, and the Northern Irish Greens have registered no donations since July.
Commenting on the publication of the first set of data on Northern Irish political donations, Ann Watt, Head of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland, repeated her call on the government to lift the ban on on publishing details of donations from 2014-2017. She said:
“For over ten years political parties in Northern Ireland have been required to report information on the donations and loans that they have received, but we have been prohibited from publishing this information.
“Transparency is an essential component to increasing public confidence in the democratic process. Information on how political parties, candidates and other campaigners raise and spend money should be open to timely public scrutiny. We are delighted that as of today we are now able to provide the public with such information.
“To further enhance this transparency we will continue to urge the UK Government to bring forward legislation that will enable us to publish the information we hold on donations and loans dating back to January 2014.”