Image credit: worldoflard@flickr
Disclaimer: Views expressed in this commentary are those of the staff member. This commentary is independent of specific national or political interests. Views expressed do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.
The Times recently reported that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)– the largest party in Northern Ireland – had donated money to one of the 2016 referendum campaigns on the UK’s membership of the European Union. There is nothing unusual in itself about this, except that under political finance provisions that apply specifically to Northern Ireland, the parties do not have to reveal the sources of their campaign donations. When new campaign finance laws were brought into force in the UK under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, Northern Ireland received a specific exemption whereby the source and amount of political donations could be kept secret. This was in the context of a history of brutal political violence during the Troubles: posting the names and addresses of political donors may have been akin to publishing a hit list.
However, what the 2000 legislation probably did not have in mind was a Northern Irish political party directing campaign funds exclusively to outside Northern Ireland. The campaign money paid for a prominent advertisement in the Metro newspaper – primarily aimed at London commuters and not published or distributed in Northern Ireland. Some sources estimate the cost of the advertisement to have been at least £250,000. This would be more than double the sum the party spent contesting the last elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly. If the money had been given to a campaign group in any other part of the UK, details of the donation would have been made public.
There is nothing illegal in the DUP having spent the money on campaign advertising in England in this manner. However, knowing that the identity of the donor (or any other details about the donation for that matter) does not have to be revealed creates the perception that something is being hidden. In particular with the Northern Ireland Assembly elections taking place on 2 March, the issue has very much taken a life of its own in Northern Irish media.
In recent interviews, the Leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, was asked about the source of the donation, and she refused to give any further details. The DUP itself would be fully at liberty to publish details about the donation if it chose to do so.
These recent events have led to calls for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire MP, to publish the names of all major donors to political parties in Northern Ireland. It is correct that the Secretary of State has discretion on whether to draw up secondary legislation to publish details of donations in Northern Ireland from 2014 onwards (as specified in Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Acts 2006 and 2014). Indeed, the last time the issue came up was in 2014 when the Northern Ireland Office indicated that they would need to pass new legislation to bring in more transparency. At the time, however, the ministry said that they were only willing to consider publishing details about the size and type of donation, but not the identity of the donor.