Lord Duncan of Springbank. Image, BBC, fair use.
The government continues to contort its normal rules in order to cover up a secret donation to the DUP, openDemocracy can reveal. In the House of Lords last week, a Northern Ireland Office minister appeared to leave the door open to the government honouring a previous commitment to publish details of all major donations to Northern Irish parties since 2014 – including a £435,000 donation to the DUP ahead of the European referendum. However, officials have undermined his claims.
In response to concerns raised by peers that the government was covering up for the DUP, the Northern Ireland Office minister Lord Duncan of Springbank told the House of Lords last week: “Right now, we are not ruling out the re-examination of the period that precedes 1 July 2017. Indeed, the draft order will allow consideration of it... We will not rule anything in or out on that point. I stress that. It is important that we recognise it.”
However, officials from the Northern Ireland Office have privately briefed that “no one should read a great deal into what the minister (Lord Duncan) was saying.”
The extraordinary dismissal of Lord Duncan of Springbank’s statement by officials from his own department came after he told a Lords debate on donor transparency last week that he recognised “the issue of backdating will remain sensitive”, and acknowledged that the Electoral Commission has called on the government to now introduce a new measure allowing it to publish details of all major donations to Northern Irish parties from 2014, as previously promised.
Since the Conservative/DUP pact last year, the Northern Ireland Office has pushed a revision of their previously agreed donor rules that would avoid making public the full details of the cash given to the DUP from 2014-17, including its notorious Brexit donation. The money, spent mostly in England, Scotland and Wales, came from an unknown source via a secretive organisation based in Glasgow, the Constitutional Research Council.
The CRC is run by Richard Cook, a former vice-chairman of the Scottish Conservatives. It was fined £6,000 by the Electoral Commission last year for failing to comply with Commission rules.
Lord Duncan’s promise that “We are ruling nothing in and nothing out” was regarded as a small, though significant concession by opposition parties who have been calling on the government to honour previous commitments that all major donations to Northern Irish parties from 2014 would be published.
The stark Northern Ireland Office briefings which undermine Lord Duncan’s words in the Lords, leaving his assurance effectively worthless, were described by a senior Whitehall official as “disgraceful”.
The official said: “A minister is there to deliver the government’s message. If his own department’s officials are under-cutting what he says, then something is not right. So he should return to the House of Lords and explain what the hell is going on.”
Although the Electoral Commission investigated the origins of the £435,000 donation to the DUP – as they were legally required to do – they are prevented from publishing further details because of current laws protecting political donations and loans in the province.
A law passed in 2014 committed the government to one day publishing details of all major donations to Northern Irish parties from that year onwards. Northern Irish civil society organisations have consistently backed transparency from 2014, and consultations with the Northern Irish public have shown widespread support for transparency from that date. However, when the former Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire finally got round to consulting on the issue in January 2017, he only canvassed views from Northern Irish parties. Of those he wrote to, only the Alliance Party expressed a specific wish that all donations made since 2014 should be made public.
However since the May 2017 general election and the subsequent minority Conservative government deal with the DUP, openDemocracy has established that all the parties in Northern Ireland – apart from the DUP – formed a new consensus that even they agreed that the government should honour the 2014 legislation. Mr Brokenshire was told of their change of views during numerous one-to-one negotiations and exchanges of letter since last year’s general election.
Officials in the Northern Ireland Office told openDemocracy last week that they have no other information than those expressed to Mr Brokenshire in the first months of 2017.
During the Lords debate Lord Duncan also skated over the new consensus on backdating donor transparency, although he did note that of the parties that responded to Mr Brokenshire “at that time” the Alliance Party was alone in suggesting that publication should be backdated.
The Liberal Democrat peer, Baroness Suttie, a member of her party’s foreign affairs team, suggested an amendment to the government’s proposal, expressing regret that the government had not used powers provided in a 2014 law to allow the DUP donation to be disclosed. She said this was “preventing proper scrutiny of donations to political parties in Northern Ireland during the European Union referendum.
She later told the Lords, as a result of the assurances from Lord Duncan which have now been dismissed, that it would be “inappropriate to test the opinion of the House” and withdrew her amendment.
Another Liberal Democrat, Lord Tyler, asked “was it a coincidence” that the ministerial decision to restrict the new laws on transparency till after July 2017 “came just a few days after the government had to pay a price for DUP support in the Commons having lost its majority [at the general election]?”
Lord Tyler asked if checks had been made by the government and suggested that as Russia had taken a “considerable interest in the outcome of our referendum” perhaps “Russian money” had been channelled covertly through the DUP. He said his concerns on donor transparency went further than just Northern Ireland.
With Lord Duncan’s now weakened reassurances, the Lords backed the legislation that will allow publication of political donations and loans in Northern Ireland from July 2017.
The House of Commons is expected to vote on the measure on Wednesday.