Fresh from his earlier musings surrounding the question of ‘Who Pulls The Strings?’ Niall Bakewell is talking Donor Secrecy and this time there is less Doctor Who and more Buffy.
On the same day that my last post about Northern Ireland political donor secrecy was published on TLR in July, James Brokenshire announced his intention to lift the ban on naming big donors to Northern Ireland parties. Unfortunately, he declared that this would only apply to donations given after 1 July 2017, leaving us in the dark as to who had been funding our politics for the three and a half years before that. I was inundated with messages congratulating Friends of the Earth for their part in the campaign to end donor secrecy, but all I could hear in my head were the following lines:
The battle’s done,
And we kinda won,
So we sound our victory cheer.
Where do we go from here?
I got in trouble with the ed. for the Doctor Who references in my previous post, so maybe it isn’t advisable to quote a song from the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I could think of no better summation of how the Who Pulls the Strings campaign has concluded than the above lyrics. What this piece will not be is a victory cheer, instead it asking the question; Where do we go from here?
First of all, a bit of reflection on where we’ve got to.
Between Brokenshire’s initial announcement and the publication of the order to change donor secrecy, all the political parties in Northern Ireland except the DUP approached the SoS to let him know that they were perfectly happy for all donations given since 1 January 2014 to be published. Brokenshire’s initial rationale behind refusing to name donors who donated funds before 30 June 2017, was that none of the parties had mentioned retrospective transparency in their consultation responses back in February of this year.
We now have proof that once they were prompted to do so, every party save his new confidence-and-supply partners in government let him know that they were perfectly comfortable to have their 2014-2017 donors named, and yet he ignored this. The order published in November sticks to the cut-off date of 30 June, before which all information will remain secret.
This contempt for the views of the greater part of Northern Ireland’s political class compounds the contempt Brokenshire had already shown to civil society when he excluded the wider UK public from all consultations on the issue.
Everyone is now calling out the UK Government because it seems likely that on 5 December the DUP pulled the plug on May’s vision for the post-Brexit border, but maybe we should have been more concerned back in July, when Seamus Magee, the former head of the Northern Ireland Electoral Commission, cried foul about donor transparency:
“The deal on party donations and loans must be part of the DUP/Conservative deal. No other explanation.”
Even before the Tories’ electoral disaster in June, Brokenshire was distinguishing himself as an aloof and timid Secretary of State. Now he is aloof, timid, and answerable to a UK Government that is acutely sensitive to the displeasure of the DUP.
After two decades of special case pleading by the cabal who benefited most from the internal contradictions and sectarian assumptions inherent to the Good Friday Agreement, any illusion of Northern Ireland democracy has evaporated, and one of the most oppressive and anti-democratic political parties in Europe has gained mastery of the UK government.
Where do we go from here?
We should turn our attention on the Northern Ireland Office, and specifically the Secretary of State. He has a duty to all of us to be considerably more imaginative and brave in resolving the current political impasse. In order to do that he must look beyond the political class, and open up a society-wide discussion on how to make our institutions democratic and accountable.
The GFA is a generation old, and needs a comprehensive overhaul, if not complete replacement. We cannot trust our largest political parties to deliver this. They are too warped by their own electoral self-interest, fuelled by a feedback loop of sectarianism that they cannot, and do not want to stop. They would also cast the long shadows of secret donations over the negotiating table, and we have no idea what bizarre considerations would be brought into the discussions as a result.
So write to James Brokenshire this Christmas, and let him know how frustrated you are, not just by his moral cowardice on donor transparency, but by his complete failure to move Northern Ireland on from a year of deadlock and technocratic rule. Call him out on his timidity, his aloof disregard for the voices of wider Northern Ireland society, and his shameless acquiescence to the whims of the DUP.
Let’s flood his inbox with our disappointment and disdain. Let’s also voice our demands for institutions that move our society forward, instead of bogging us down in our past. Institutions that are built on indivisible economic, social and environmental rights. Institutions that are only established after a period of direct rule has extended equal marriage and reproductive rights to Northern Ireland over the heads of the DUP.
I’m not giving you an easy 1-click action here. No link to an online petition. All I offer you is his email address email@example.com. What you write and how you write it is up to you. Politics cannot be a spectator sport, and you cannot be a spectator. In the end the battle’s far from done, and we haven’t even kinda won. I have no idea where we’ll go in 2018, but we can’t stay here.