Who Pulls The Strings?

Northern Ireland is still the only place on these islands that protects political donors from public scrutiny by shrouding them in secrecy. Niall Bakewell, Activism Co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth here in Belfast, tells us that this is a shady practice that needs to stop – he also mentions Doctor Who, he doesn’t apologise.

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When you hit your 40s, half a decade can feel like a year used to. Your babies are suddenly traipsing home from school to teach you about pop music, your beard looks like someone’s attacked it with Tippex, and the Doctor’s on the verge of regenerating again.

You would think that something consistent would be a comfort in this swirling vortex of change, but donor secrecy is one constant I could happily see going the way of David Tennant’s trench coat and pinstripe suit.

Friends of the Earth started campaigning for political donor transparency in 2012. We were supposed to be campaigning for major reforms to the planning system when we realised that none of our proposed changes would be much use if our politicians continued to take big cash from donors who could remain veiled from the public eye.

Just in case you don’t know, since 2001 political parties in Great Britain have had to name all donors giving more than £7500 in a calendar year. For reasons I have never agreed with, Northern Ireland was immediately exempted from this new regime, and when our local parties eventually had to start registering their major donors with the Electoral Commission in 2007, the public were forbidden from seeing this list of the rich and influential.

This was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, designed to lapse into total transparency after two years if left alone, but with the option for parliament to renew it should it be deemed necessary.

By 2012 successive Secretaries of State had deemed it necessary twice. This left it up to us to put donor transparency at the top of our wishlist for planning and environmental reform.

Then Smith became Capaldi, coalition turned into a strong-and-stable majority, chicken sheds became toasty warm, and still the donor register stayed hidden from view.

The one thing we kept warning everyone about in those intervening years was that the TARDIS could suddenly transport us to a bizarre alternate dimension where a Northern Ireland party held the balance of power at Westminster, and if that happened it would probably be the DUP. What we couldn’t have predicted was that before then an even bigger opportunity for a donor to interfere secretly in UK-wide politics would arise, and that when it did, it would be a stinker.

At the height of the EU referendum campaign last year the DUP paid almost a quarter of a million pounds for an advertising campaign in the Metro newspaper – a freesheet distributed in cities throughout Great Britain, but not in Northern Ireland.

No matter whether you were for or against Brexit, this huge injection of cash into a referendum campaign by a secretly funded party should worry you. That the named donor of this money would be revealed (thanks to first-class digging by Peter Geoghegan and Adam Ramsay from Open Democracy) to be a far-right front organisation called the Constitutional Research Council should worry you much more. The true source of the money is still a mystery, but its messenger boy is a Scottish Tory called Richard Cook, with a colourful past of hanging out with highly placed Saudi henchmen and alleged gun-runners.

But it is not fair to bash the DUP alone. 

The SDLP has flip-flopped shamelessly on this issue. Back in 2010 they were declaring their intention to start naming their donors voluntarily, only to suddenly be concerned for the safety of their patrons a year later.

It didn’t seem to bother them that dozens of rank-and-file members were still required to have their names and addresses published by the Electoral Office every time the party wanted to put a bunch of candidates up for election.

The UUP have trodden the same hypocritical path as the SDLP, minus that brief promise of transparency at the start of the decade.

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Meanwhile Sinn Fein have been bleating, “We totally agree with transparency, we publish all our accounts,” so often over the past five years that it’s becoming their theme tune.

Two things about this boast:

  1. Every political party in Northern Ireland has to publish their annual accounts publicly; and

  2. Accounts don’t name donors, and neither does Sinn Fein.

The next time you’re in a room with a Sinn Fein MP, MLA or councillor, ask them about the party stance on this issue. Play with them a bit. Congratulate them on their firm ethical stance when they tell you how they publish their accounts. Concur with them that it’s ridiculous that donor secrecy is still in place. Then get out your phone and ask them where online you can find their list of donors since 2007. Watch them back away faster than Chris Ecclestone would from an invitation to appear at Comic Con.

The most important thing to note is that all four parties could start naming their donors voluntarily at any point, and yet none will blink first.

Meanwhile the Alliance and Greens both kept voluntarily naming their donors throughout the darkest days of the flag crisis, even while Alliance offices were being burnt out, and elected representatives were getting death threats. The Alliance proved that donors aren’t a target, even when the forces of hell have been unleashed on everyone else associated with your party.

Just before the 2017 Assembly Election, in the teeth of the RHI scandal, James Brokenshire received word from the four largest parties that it was time to end donor secrecy. What this means is that they no longer think that their benefactors are in danger, and yet still they choose to keep donor identities from us.

In February this year Steve Aiken of the UUP admitted on live radio that the failure by his party to name their donors before donor secrecy officially ends – even though they have confirmed that they believe the time is right to do so – is “morally bankrupt.” I would add that it is cowardly, and anti-democratic, and I would include the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the DUP in all those categories too.

The power to change this still lies with Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire. The procedure needed to put the Northern Ireland donor register into the public realm is a parliamentary formality, and would do so much to allay fears of dark money influencing how the DUP tail will wag the Tory dog. The problem now is that if the DUP begins to feel coy about who has been giving them money since the start of 2014, they now have the leverage to ensure that nothing changes.

It is up to the citizens of the UK, who have a right to shine a light into party political funding in every dark and dirty corner of the nation, to ensure that Brokenshire feels sufficient pressure in the opposite direction to stand up to Nigel and company.

This was never just a Northern Ireland issue, as the Brexit donations showed, but now it is of the highest priority that we bombard the Secretary of State with our demand to finally tell us Who Pulls the Strings.

Take action now at https://bit.ly/darkmoneyuk


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