The limits of transparency in Northern Ireland

By Bob Posner, Director of Political Finance and Regulation and Legal Counsel

Transparency is a guiding principle for us at the Electoral Commission. We believe voters should be able to see and understand how political parties and campaigners are funded; how they spend their money; and who they target with campaign materials.

The rules set out by Parliament, which we enforce, state that political parties and campaign groups must provide us with information on donations and loans, campaign spending and annual accounts. We then publish the information via our easy to use, searchable database. For us, our role is not just about publishing political finance information, it is about ensuring this information is easy to access and open to scrutiny. We believe this increases public trust and confidence in our democratic process.

Until recently, these rules did not extend fully to Northern Ireland. While political parties in Northern Ireland were required to provide us with the same financial information, we were not permitted to publish or share anything about donations and loans to these parties.

A major milestone in addressing the lack of transparency in Northern Ireland political finance came last year, when legislation was introduced allowing us to publish details of donations and loans to Northern Ireland parties, received from July 2017 onwards. While this is an encouraging start, it is vital we don’t stop there.

Prior to this change in legislation, we dealt with donation and loan information from Northern Ireland differently, for publication purposes, but it was still subject to rigorous compliance checks by us. This means checking donations to political parties in Northern Ireland to make sure they come from a permissible source. Failing to return an impermissible donation within 30 days can be an electoral offence and where we find evidence that this has happened we take action in line with our Enforcement Policy. If that means an investigation, we then publish its outcome even if we cannot publish details of the donation itself.

However the Commission continues to be prevented from disclosing any information concerning donations to political parties in Northern Ireland made before 1 July 2017. To do so would be an offence with serious penalties for the Commission and our staff.  This makes it extremely difficult for us to discuss and share information about how political parties in Northern Ireland are funded.

A lack of transparency is not good for our democracy and prevents the public from having important information on how their political parties are funded. That is why we welcomed the change in the law last year but also why we continue to call on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to introduce further legislation to enable us to publish the information we hold from January 2014.

This was the government’s original intention when the law was changed in 2014. At that time we advised political parties to make their donors aware that all donations made from January 2014 could be made public in the future. Extending the transparency rules to 2014 would open up a period of intense electoral activity to scrutiny, taking in two UK parliamentary general elections, two Northern Ireland Assembly elections, EU and local government elections and the EU referendum. Transparency for these significant electoral events would do a great deal for voter trust and confidence in the democratic process.

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