When it comes donations and party funding, Northern Ireland is to the UK political world, what Panama is to tax. Peter Geoghegan and Adam Ramsay with a nice piece of investigative journalism at Open Democracy:
A quarter of a million pounds is unlike anything the DUP has spent in the past. Just a month before the EU referendum, the party won 38 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections and retained its position as the largest party there.
To do this, they spent less than £90,000.
The 2015 general election – where the DUP won eight seats and became the third-equal biggest group in Westminster – cost the party only £58,000. In fact, the total combined spend of all Northern Irish political parties for the 2015 general election was just £221,143.
The DUP’s most recent accounts show that its total expenditure for the whole of 2015 was £511,766, and its net assets at the end of the year were around £195,000.
A bill of more than £250,000 only months later would therefore have left them bankrupt – unless they got significant extra income from somewhere.
[There’s also that half a million SF conjured for its misadventure in the Gormley case? – Ed] Quite. Anyway, Geoghegan and Ramsay continue:
….what’s really significant is that, because of the aforementioned loophole, we aren’t allowed to know where any such donations came from.
Of course, it’s theoretically possible that the DUP raised all of this money from its membership through raffles and crowdfunders. But it seems far more likely that the extraordinary sum spent on this ostentatious Brexit advert came from major donations. In which case we won’t have any idea who really helped to bankroll this key part of the Leave campaign.
You see, in the rest of the UK, parties must report all donations of more than £7,500 to a national party or £1,500 to a local branch.
But the names and addresses of donors to Northern Irish political parties and campaigns are not made public, ostensively because of “special circumstances”: the security situation is used as an excuse for donations to be reported to the Electoral Commission, but kept ‘sealed’, so that you and I can’t know who they are from.
The odd thing about this scenario is just how quiet other NI parties have been on the matter. Geoghegan and Ramsay talked to some of the virtuous few who have been campaigning long and hard for transparency on donations:
…many have questioned the DUP’s Brexit spending. The Metro adverts “are a donation hidden in plain sight. A very large donation was funnelled through the Northern Irish donor black hole,” says Niall Bakewell from Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, who have long campaigned for full disclosure of political donations.
“It is hard to understand why the DUP would spend that amount of money on an advert in London or anywhere else in GB. Where are the benefits to the DUP in doing that?” Alliance party leader Naomi Long told openDemocracy.
“It is certainly possible that funds were being channeled through a party in Northern Ireland to take advantage of the veil of secrecy that surrounds our party political donations,” Steven Agnew, leader of the Northern Irish Greens, said to openDemocracy, “It would concern me greatly if it was found that ‘donor tourism’ was taking place.”
The piece ends with an appeal to James Brokenshire to reveal the source of the cash. However, what’s keeping the dark money in place (think the late Research Services Ireland and various shady cultural organisations?) is the lack of political will to get rid of laws which protect such conduits.
Nothing short of a change in the law will drain this swamp. Are the SDLP and the UUP willing to put themselves (and their donors) through the necessary pain of making that an issue in this election? They’ve been reluctant to join Alliance, the Greens and the TUV in the past.
The course of the EURef tells us a lot about how big money is finding digital and non digital means to bend politics to its will. The DUP has questions to face of course, but the law (ostensibly to protect donors from intimidation) gives them the cover to refuse to answer.
It’s the law that needs to be changed. Leaving that up to its chief beneficiaries is madness.
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