A senior DUP figure has suggested the media are singling out his party on the issue of political donations.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP was responding to a story this week, unearthed by investigative news website The Detail and followed up other outlets, which showed he had tried to delay publication of some of the party’s financial information until after last month’s election.
The Detail set out a long chain of e-mails between the DUP and the Electoral Commission (the government body which keeps track of political financing), in which Sir Jeffrey and other party figures called for the publication of EU referendum spending to be put off until after March 2.
This included the fact his party spent an incredible sum of over £425,000 on its Leave campaign (a sum almost as large as the party’s entire annual income).
The commission nonetheless proceeded to publish on February 24.
Under pressure to reveal how it had so much money at its disposal, the DUP then declared publicly that it had been given a donation of about £435,000 by a little-known group, the Constitutional Research Council.
The Detail’s story has put renewed focus on the issue of political donations in the Province; unlike the rest of the UK, all donations to Northern Irish parties remain hidden (although some smaller parties, like the Alliance, publish theirs voluntarily).
Sir Jeffrey said: “The fact is that none of the other main parties in Northern Ireland have published information about who they receive their donations from.
“My challenge to the media who are constantly hounding the DUP on this issue is a very simple one: what are you doing to challenge the other political parties on this issue?
“In the end, the DUP is one party. There are other parties that also engage in fundraising activities, and yet it seems to me the media are not interested in asking them for transparency.”
Meanwhile, there was little clarity on a claim by Alliance leader Naomi Long on Friday during the BBC Nolan Show, that some parties are seeking to extend the existing blackout on naming donors even further.
Currently, the Secretary of State could (if he so chose) decide to name all Northern Irish political donors since 2014.
However, Mrs Long suggested that there was “a push” in the recent talks by some parties to this moved back – perhaps to August 2017.
An Alliance spokesman said that they had seen this suggestion raised by someone, but could not be certain who.
All four other big parties were asked directly by the News Letter if they were responsible for such a suggestion.
They all said no.
The UUP said “we support publishing party donations from the start of the new financial year (today, Saturday 1 April 2017)”, but that if the Secretary of State wished to publish the names of donors from January 2014, “we would not oppose that”.
Sinn Fein said they have “called for an end to the practice of keeping the identity of donors secret and that the threshold for reporting donations be lowered to £500”.
The SDLP said it has “urged the Secretary of State to set a date after which political party donations should be published”, adding that the traditional arguments in favour of donor secrecy “now no longer apply”.
A DUP spokesman denied that it is pressing to shift the donor exposure period back to August 2017.
The party also said in a statement: “The DUP wants to see a level playing field on political donations.
“We support the introduction of the same rules for Northern Ireland as exist in the rest of the United Kingdom.
“Whilst some parties focus solely on the issue of transparency, we want to see the bar on foreign donations that exists in the rest of the UK extended to Northern Ireland also.”
KEY E-MAILS UNEARTHED BY ‘THE DETAIL’ ABOUT DUP BID TO DELAY BREXIT SPENDING DETAILS:
Feb 16, 10.27am.
Electoral Commission internal email to staff from Ann Watt, head of the service, pre-empting possible DUP reaction.
“All - we need to be aware that there may be a strong push-back from the DUP (and possibly others) about our plans to publish the EU referendum spending returns on Friday, 24 February, given that it is six days before the NI Assembly election... Obviously we would be challenged from the opposite direction if we postponed the publication of these returns until after the NI election.”
Feb 16, 10.32am.
Email from DUP chief of staff Chris Montgomery, Westminster, to Claire Bassett, Electoral Commission CEO.
“We’ve noticed in the press various stories to the effect of ‘the EU spending returns are soon to be published by the Electoral Commission’. Our friends in the media frequently get things wrong... Therefore we’d be grateful if you could please confirm that the Electoral Commission, in accordance with both best practice and past precedent, will obviously not by publishing the returns during the Northern Ireland Assembly Election campaign.”
Feb 20, 8.57am
Email from Jeffrey Donaldson (cc to Nigel Dodds) to Claire Bassett.
“Thank you for your email of 17 February in which you confirmed that the Electoral Commission (the Commssion) is planning to publish EU referendum campaign spending returns, if it is able to do so, on on 24 February... The Democratic Unionist Party (the DUP) invites you to reconsider this decision which appears to be vitiated by two errors of law.
[Mr Donaldson then cites two points - the first about the interpretation of the legal requirement to publish returns as soon as ‘reasonably practicable’, and the second about the conduct of public bodies during the pre-election purdah period.]
He concludes: “The DUP considers that the publication of politically-sensitive material in the week before polling day by the commission would be unprecedented and undercut established rules designed to ensure public bodies do not intervene in election campaigns.
“Such publication would inevitably risk damaging the reputation of the commission for impartiality and its legitimacy as a regulator in Northern Ireland.”
Feb 20. Precise time of writing unknown.
Letter from Bob Posner, Electoral Commission director of political finance and regulation & legal counsel, to Jeffrey Donaldson and Nigel Dodds.
“I refer to your email of 20 February... You invite the commission to delay publication of the returns by a week so they are not published before the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections. Your concern is such would prejudice the fairness of those elections...
“The commission is an independent public body that reports direct to parliament. It is not part of government and does not report to a minister... [We are aware of guidance on purdah rules] and nothing in it suggests that a public body should not proceed in accordance with its statutory duties... The commission has a long established, consistent and considered approach to publishing election or referendum spending returns information as soon as reasonably practicable after receiving the returns...
“Whilst you would prefer the commission to delay publication, this is not an option the commission would regard as open to it in the context and facts of this matter.”