Party funding: NI Parties still making it up as they go along?

Electoral Commission logo
Party donations, eh? We have an exception to the general rule in Northern Ireland. The logic of a recent debate in the Commons was to bring NI into line with the rest of the UK such that donors of more than £7,500 are made publicly available. It failed, much to the apparent puzzlement of some English MPs.

The SDLP insisted that it should go ahead, just so long as the anonymity of southern Irish (and by extension, international) donors were left alone. The DUP wanted that hole plugged, but argued that it could be bad for business if corporate sponsorship of one party or another (or, possibly both) if anonymity were removed.

So, to be clear, we still have no idea who is paying for our politics.

What ensues is a cycle of corrosive cynicism, since as James Orr of Friends of the Earth puts it, “because we do not know a lack of trust emerges between citizens and government”.

The SDLP’s resistance brings up talk of wealthy Dublin investors in the party, the DUP’s alleged closeness to developers, the implausible endurance of the UUP, and the magically elastic industrial wages of Sinn Fein.

In fact the problem of naming of donors is secondary to the reliability of the accounts themselves. In truth, the parties can present any figures that suit their own purposes. None of them are subject to any external auditing by the Electoral Commission, the Audit Office, or even the Revenue.

So when Martin McGuinness took the trouble to publish personal bank statements (oddly devoid of heavy duty domestic bills), he was well within the acceptable deviation standards afforded all our politicians.

This lack of transparency can lead to all sorts of interestingly ambiguous readings. For example, Belfast Daily argues that SF’s published loss may be down to extra expenditure on the Gormley libel case.

The headline figure of 80k is certainly there in the year end (SinnFéin-SOA-Year end 31Dec2012) statement of accounts for 2012, which reports it as expenditure before the 31st December even though that payment was not made to Gormley until 2013.

Where did that money go in the meantime? None of our business, apparently. But at the very least it brings the total amount that will have to be found (in excess of a £250k we understand) next year.

But to be fair, this capacity to resort to flexible accounting applies to all parties, not just Sinn Fein. They can – and seemingly do – tell the Electoral Commission almost anything they think we’ll want to hear.

And we all duly report it… 😉

Until the rules change [Aye, ever heard of turkeys and Christmas? – Ed], we can do no other…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty