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UK government set to ignore Northern Ireland parties’ transparency calls

Brokenshire loses his excuse for hiding DUP’s lavish Brexit donors, but still refuses to reveal their identity

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire: gov.uk, fair use

The UK government is planning to ignore new demands from Northern Ireland’s political parties for backdated transparency on political donations – effectively barring the public from knowing who gave a controversial £435,000 to the Democratic Unionist Party’s Brexit campaign. 

After openDemocracy first reported the scale of the record donation to the DUP’s lavish Brexit campaign, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire announced an end to donor secrecy in NI. But he has now ruled out backdating the law change to 2014, which would have revealed the source of the DUP cash.

The record £435,000 donation – a far larger sum than the DUP has ever spent on an electoral campaign – attracted particular controversy because almost none of the cash was spent in Northern Ireland. Yet the donor secrecy laws which apply to Northern Ireland, and not the rest of the UK, meant the donors are allowed to remain anonymous.

Since the June election result, which forced Theresa May to seal a £1 billion deal with the DUP to keep her government in power, openDemocracy has learned that Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Alliance Party, and the Greens have all told Brokenshire in writing or during talks that they want transparency on political donations backdated to 2014, thereby revealing the source of the DUP’s Brexit funding.

The Ulster Unionists have also told Brokenshire in private talks that they too do not oppose retrospective legislation and backed a consensus for the 2014 date, although their support is on the strict condition that Sinn Fein cannot opt out of any new rules by being treated as an all-Ireland political entity.

Only the DUP has not updated its position on transparency since the June election. A spokesman for the DUP said they had called for “openness” in their May 2016 manifesto and would “comply with whatever date and decision the government brought it.”

They also said that backdated transparency to 2014 would make little difference as “We have already said where the £435,000 donation came from. It came from the Constitutional Research Council”. 

The CRC, as openDemocracy has previously reported, is a secretive group which has refused to disclose its donors, its members, or to deny allegations that it had to pay a substantial fine of £6,000 to the Electoral Commission last month, the reasons for which remain unknown. In reality, as openDemocracy has also previously reported, backdating the law to 2014 would force the CRC to reveal where they had got their money from.

Transparency, now

In January this year Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire wrote to all NI’s parties, stating “the political and security context in Northern Ireland has changed significantly” and he wanted their views on “ending the current arrangement.”  

In the initial responses over January and February this year, all the main parties backed transparency in principle. Only the Alliance Party specifically asked that the commencement of full transparency should be January 2014.

However, since Theresa May struck the deal with the DUP in June to keep her government in power, a senior Northern Ireland Office source told openDemocracy that the tone on transparency [in Northern Ireland] “has completely changed.”

The source said:  “What was once regarded as sensitive and seen as a necessary diplomatic omission is now a full blown demand. A Commons debate on transparency without an examination of the merits of when it [funding transparency] should start is now seen as politically unacceptable.”

Since June, Brokenshire has held a series of negotiations on donation transparency with all of Northern Ireland main parties.

openDemocracy talked to all the main parties and was given details of the post-election private discussions held with Brokenshire. Either in writing or during these private negotiations, the Secretary of State was told that every party – except the DUP – wanted or would not oppose full transparency regulations beginning in 2014.

However Brokenshire has refused to update his plans. Barely a fortnight after the DUP arrangement with the Conservatives was agreed in June, he said that new secondary legislation would apply to “all donations and loans received on or after July 1, 2017.”

 A statement by the Northern Ireland Office issued yesterday said Brokenshire had received “no further correspondence from parties on this matter [transparency].”

In addition, Brokenshire’s office said that new legislation on donations was now “at an advanced stage of drafting” and would be brought before the Westminster parliament “shortly”. 

‘Debate’ in the Commons - but no changes

The government intends to drive the legislation through Westminster using a procedure (an affirmative statutory instrument) that will involve a Commons debate, but avoid amendments – which removes the risk of a challenge. Northern Ireland Office insiders told openDemocracy that the prize of donation transparency in Northern Ireland outweighs any concern over when it commences.  

Despite the recent talks, exchanged correspondence, and public announcements on the preference for transparency rules to be backdated three years, the Northern Ireland Office dismissed the idea that anything had changed since the general election and the £1 billion deal with DUP. 

Origins of the £435,000 donation

openDemocracy earlier this year published details of the obscure Glasgow-based organisation, the Constitutional Research Council, which organised the transfer of the cash to the DUP. Run by Richard Cook, whose business associates include a former Saudi spy boss and an individual with alleged links to a major arms scandal, the CRC has refused to answer any questions on the origins of the DUP cash.

Although the DUP and the CRC maintain the funds complied with the law, a £6,000 fine was imposed by the Electoral Commission in August this year. Mr Cook, given the opportunity to deny his organisation had been fined by the Commission, refused to comment.

The Northern Ireland Office were formally asked about the change of position on transparency by the main political parties that has taken place over the last three months. A spokesman said:  “We do not discuss details of the private discussions held by Secretary of State and the other political parties.”

This is day three of openDemoracy's #BrexitDarkMoney series. See coverage from day one and day two, and our reasons for publishing the series.

About the author

James Cusick is editor of openMedia at OpenDemocracy and a former political correspondent at The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC.

 


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