The precise details behind a controversial £435,000 donation to Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party will continue to be protected in law, according to new draft legislation published by the government.
A draft order to bring political donations and loans in Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom was laid before parliament in Westminster earlier this week.
A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, described the proposed legislative change as bringing “full transparency” which would receive “widespread support” from the people of Northern Ireland.
Donor details before 2017 will remain confidential
However the new law will only cover funding received on or after July 2017. All donations and loans received before the 2017 cut-off will be kept confidential.
Westminster will process the law change in Northern Ireland through secondary rather than primary legislation. This means the government will not take any amendments to Brokenshire’s draft, with MPs examining the proposed legal changes only in a fast-tracked small all-party committee.
When the full House of Commons eventually votes, it will effectively be on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
The DUP ‘dark money’
The £435,000 donation to the DUP in 2016 was made by a Glasgow-based organisation called the Constitutional Research Council (CRC). The money, a record donation and far larger than any previous DUP campaign, was used throughout the UK as part of the Brexit campaign.
openDemocracy earlier this year published details on the CRC and its head, Richard Cook. Cook, a former vice-chair of the Scottish Conservative Party, founded a company in 2013 with a Saudi spy boss and another individual connected to a major arms scandal.
Though both Cook and the DUP have maintained they fully complied with all Northern Ireland’s electoral laws on donations, the Electoral Commission recently levied a £6,000 fine on a “regulated entity” after an investigation found deficiencies.
The Electoral Commission were legally bound to protect donor identity and other information. However openDemocracy revealed that Richard Cook and the CRC were linked to the penalty. Although a fine was paid in August, the Commission’s investigation is still in progress.
The penalty fine is believed to relate to the CRC failing to disclose to the Electoral Commission where the money it gave to the DUP actually came from.
Following this year’s June election result, Theresa May’s minority government agreed a deal with the DUP’s 10 MPs which kept her in power. A £1 billion promise for extra funding in the province helped seal the arrangement.
Brokenshire to ignore new consensus
In January this year, Brokenshire consulted Northern Ireland’s political parties over greater donor transparency. He said the “political and security context in Northern Ireland had changed significantly” and that “full transparency” in line with the rest of the UK, should now be considered.
All parties supported greater transparency, but only the Alliance Party initially stipulated this should be backdated to 2014.
Since the election a new consensus for retrospective transparency has emerged. Now only the DUP are firmly committed to ruling out any attempt to backdate donor laws.
openDemocracy contacted the main political parties last month and was told that during negotiations, talks, and private meetings held with the Northern Ireland Secretary over the last four months, it was made clear that the situation had substantially changed since the January 2017 consultation.
The draft laid before the Westminster parliament this week by Brokenshire does not acknowledge any such discussions taking place. An explanatory memorandum accompanying the draft states only that “all parties … expressed broad support for the future publication of donations and loans, only one party expressed support for backdating publication.”
Westminster’s limited scrutiny
The government’s use of primary legislation through a statutory instrument effectively blocks opposition parties from insisting on an amendment that would introduce a form of retrospective transparency.
Following the draft publication, a UK government statement said: “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 democractic 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.