“This confidentiality clause is due to expire on 31 October 2010.”

The BBC reports that the Northern Ireland Electoral Commission will tell the NI Assembly tomorrow [Presumably at the closed meeting of the Business Committee? – Ed] that, “Most people” are in favour of ending the confidentiality surrounding donations to political parties in NI. According to the Electoral Commission, the “research was conducted through [small and somewhat oddly constructed] focus group research (pdf) and through additional questions we asked as part of tracking research on our public awareness campaign for the European Parliamentary elections (pdf).” From the BBC report

Two out of the eight focus groups bucked the overall trend and concluded that political donors should remain anonymous. Both these groups were based in Belfast. The issue is due to be discussed at Stormont on Tuesday, when the chair of the commission, Jenny Watson, will tell MLAs and local political parties that they need to embrace greater levels of transparency if they are to win back public trust.

Good luck with that one…Formatting is a bit off but here’s the breakdown of those focus groups

Group/Location/Age/Social Class/Political Opinion/Urban-Rural/No of participants
1 Greater Belfast 18-29 ABC1 Nationalist Urban 8
2 Greater Belfast 45-60 C2DE Unionist Urban 8
3 Greater Belfast 30-44 ABC1 Unionist Urban 6
4 Greater Belfast 61+ C2DE Unionist Urban 8
5 Newry 45-60 ABC1 Nationalist Rural 8
6 Newry 30-44 C2DE Nationalist Urban 8
7 Derry 61+ ABC1 Nationalist Urban 7
8 Derry 18-29 C2DE Unionist Rural 8

“A similar proportion of men and women attended each group.”

A number of factors/considerations were taken into account when deciding the group structure:

 Half the groups were held in Belfast to reflect the fact that a significant proportion of the population in Northern Ireland is concentrated in this area.
 Given the sensitive and political nature of the groups it was agreed to split the groups according to political opinion. It was not felt necessary to split the groups according to affiliation to a political party but a mix of party political support within each Nationalist/Unionist group was recruited.
 At least one of Derry and Fermanagh/Tyrone needed to be included as previous quantitative research indicated that compared to the other parts of Northern Ireland, residents in these areas have quite different attitudes towards whether information about who donated money to political parties should be made available. They are far more likely to say they don’t mind whereas residents of other counties feel more strongly that the information should be made available. Derry was selected as it allowed an appropriate balance overall in terms of the number of urban and rural groups, and Nationalist and Unionist groups.
 All participants were selected on the basis that they had at least some interest in politics in order to effectively contribute to a discussion on these issues.
 Party members or people particularly active in politics were excluded to avoid those who may have had superior knowledge of the party funding system potentially alienating others in the groups and biasing results.
 A mix of voters and non-voters was included in each group (splitting the groups by voting behaviour in addition to other criteria would have made the structure too complex).
 A topic guide was designed in consultation with the Electoral Commission. The Commission also provided background information to be used as prompts during the course of the discussions. These are included in the appendices.
 Where necessary the discussions were deliberately steered away from the MPs expenses scandal.

Of those groups, one nationalist and one unionist group in Belfast were opposed to the ending of confidentiality on donations to political parties.

From the Electoral Commission report [ pdf file]

3. Summary

Where do parties get their money from?

 There was relatively little knowledge of or interest in how political parties in Northern Ireland are funded, but some participants knew that parties were funded through private donations from businesses, individuals and state funding. The majority of this information, it was claimed, was picked up through newspapers and news on television. Of greater interest to participants, however, was how political parties spend their money, particularly in light of the recent MPs expenses scandal.

Why do people donate to parties?

 Overwhelmingly, people thought that private donations and loans from businesses were generally made to buy favours or to influence policy. The Seymour Sweeney/Ian Paisley Jnr. case was frequently used as an example to illustrate this point. Individuals were seen to be more likely than businesses to make a donation because they believed in the principles of the party.

Should parties get money from the state?

 There were mixed views about whether political parties in Northern Ireland should receive money from state funding. Some participants viewed it positively because it would limit the influence that private donors would have over parties and it would give a chance to smaller parties with less access to other sources of funding. However, other participants were concerned that state funding would have to be paid for through higher taxes.

Would you give money to a political party?

 The vast majority of participants would not personally donate money to a political party. Reasons given included not being able to afford to donate, a preference for donating money to a charity if they did have spare cash and a lack of trust in politicians and political parties and how the money would be spent.

Confidentiality – yes or no?

 No one knew with any certainty whether donors’ details were kept confidential or not, in part reflecting a lack of interest in the subject.
 In six of the eight groups the weight of opinion was in favour of lifting the confidentiality arrangement. While these participants acknowledged that the threat of intimidation remained an issue, many felt that Northern Ireland has moved on sufficiently to make donors’ details public without major repercussions. Some did think there was a possibility that businesses may lose custom if it became known that they were funding a particular political party. However, the need for openness and transparency in the political system in Northern Ireland outweighed this. While it seems few would actively
seek out this information if it were available, the general view was that parties would be more accountable if donations were made public.
 In the two remaining groups, both in Belfast (one Nationalist, one Unionist), the majority of participants were against the confidentiality arrangement coming to an end. In these groups there was concern that the threat of intimidation was still too great. Another argument put forward for maintaining confidentiality was that party political support was a personal matter and donations, like voting, should be anonymous.

Who regulates the finances of parties?

 There was very little knowledge of the regulation of party and election finance, hence there was little firm opinion as to whether party finance rules were adhered to or regulated. Where there was it tended towards the negative – that parties probably did break the rules or find some means of getting around them.
 Wide ranging sanctions were suggested for parties if funding rules are broken, from fines to criminal prosecutions. Not all felt that financial penalties were sufficient for breaking funding rules. For repeated offences and accepting large amounts of money from inadmissible sources, politicians should be subject to prosecution, as would anyone else who committed fraud.

From the Detailed Findings

4.1.1 Awareness of sources of funding

While participants across all of the eight groups were able to mention at least some of the sources of party funding it was evident that much of this was a case of guess work rather than being well informed about the system of party funding. It was apparent throughout the discussion that this was an area where participants had little knowledge and for the majority there was also little genuine interest.

The most commonly mentioned sources were government or ‘public’ money and private donations from wealthy individuals and businesses. Some were aware that Sinn Fein MLAs/MPs gave a portion of their salary to the party (mainly from Nationalist groups) and there was limited awareness of fund raising drives through raffles, door-to-door collections and fundraising events.

When prompted on whether parties could receive money from overseas, a number were adamant that donations, for Sinn Fein in particular, did come from business and individuals in the United States (and the 60+, ABC1 group in Derry also mentioned Columbia). Several references were made to connections the party has in that country. Even when informed that money could not be accepted from overseas donors, there was disbelief that this was really the case or that the party could get round the rules with large donations being made via contacts in UK and ROI.

Donations from businesses or individuals in ROI were not mentioned spontaneously, but when told that this was permissible and did happen none of the participants seemed surprised that this was the case. Party member subscription fees and conference fees were other sources of which there was very limited awareness.

And on Confidentiality

4.2.1 Awareness and understanding

Generally participants were not sure whether information about donations and loans were currently kept confidential or made available to the public. While some assumed that the information was available, others thought the opposite. Among those who thought the information was kept confidential the main reason given was that neither donor nor party would want it to become available so that it would not be apparent what favours were being bought and at what cost. None of the participants spontaneously suggested that the confidentiality arrangement was in place due to potential intimidation of donors.

There was no awareness that donations and loans of over £5,000 had to be declared to the Electoral Commission (or any organisation at all). On presenting this information to respondents the immediate response from many was ‘well how many donations are made for £4,999?’