Bringing Northern Ireland’s political process in line with the UK

It’s exactly a year to the day since Jo Cox was murdered. The Labour MP, who represented the Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen, was shot and stabbed in the village of Birstall.

People in many areas are marking this day, not by remembering her killer, but by holding events to celebrate her life. Whatever your view of Westminster, or politicians, the murder of Jo Cox was an attack on democracy. It was also a terrifying manifestation of the desire by some people to silence women.

In contrast, the other anniversary being celebrated this week is a direct answer to both of those things. Fifteen years ago this week Mick Fealty started this blog. During that time it has added to and shaped the reporting and commentary on politics in Northern Ireland – and elsewhere.

And now, more than ever, it’s a vital resource.

Another election on these islands has meant the political wind has changed direction again. Suddenly Northern Ireland has reappeared on the horizon, and those of us who’ve spent a long time following the twists and turns of politics here have been watching in amusement, and then horror, as (most) journalists and commentators across Britain have scrambled to catch up. In fact, no harm to them, but it feels at times as if we are not even speaking the same language

As talks continue between the DUP and the Conservative Party, aimed at allowing Teresa May to form a government, the UK national media has been awash with “Who are the DUP?” articles. It’s as if the party, which has been represented at Westminster since 1974, had only just appeared. But as the BBC Newsround website helpfully explains: “Because the DUP are a party that only stand for election in Northern Ireland, you may not have heard of them unless you live there”.

Many of those articles have focused on the DUP’s social conservatism. The response from Northern Ireland has been to roundly criticise a Britain only now waking up to the fact that life here has been influenced by this party for decades. But the DUP has never disguised its beliefs, and yet again, a sizeable chunk of the electorate in Northern Ireland – 36pc – chose to vote for those beliefs. That is their democratic right, and criticising a party for views you don’t agree with risks insulting their voters. This is democracy.

However, the GB media and electorate might want to take a closer look at just how democracy operates here in Northern Ireland. One of the key issues for voters in Northern Ireland is the continued secrecy around the funders of political parties.  Currently, a donation of more than £7,500 must be declared to the Electoral Commission, who checks if it is from a permissible source. But that information is not made public, as it is in the rest of the UK. The argument against greater transparency has always been that donors will be put at risk – a hang-over from the days of the Troubles.

All the parties support bringing NI in line with the UK. The Alliance Party and the Green Party in Northern Ireland voluntarily publish their donations. Recently Belfast City Council voted in favour of an Alliance Party proposal to reveal the names of political donors.

Green leader Stephen Agnew has consistently called for greater transparency and the pressure group Friends of the Earth have long campaigned over the issue.

I looked at this issue on BBC Hearts and Minds back in 2012  and at that time, new legislation was expected in 2013. As the late Liam Clarke reported in The Belfast Telegraph in 2013 the situation was then due to be reviewed in 2014. But even when the legislation DID change, the secrecy remained, as the then Secretary of State Teresa Villiers failed to act on it. Last year, The Detail used a legal loophole to reveal the extent of funding accessed by NI candidates for the general election in 2015 and discovered anomalies in reporting donations.

Now, after the Brexit referendum, the strange case of the DUP funding a pro-Brexit advert in London has raised serious questions about this state of affairs again.

If the DUP and the other Northern Ireland parties are in favour of transparency, why haven’t they pushed the Secretary of State to do something about it? And if Northern Ireland is now back on the UK-wide political agenda, let’s see some genuine interrogation by the media there, into how politics operates here.

Dr Julia Paul is a journalist, broadcaster and academic based in Northern Ireland. She has taught at Belfast Met and Queen’s University and is a former BBC reporter. You can find her on Twitter @julia__paul