Alliance tops list of political donations, but concerns remain over transparency

Only parties that have Members who have been elected to the Assembly are eligible for public funding

Friends of the Earth have raised lingering concerns about how and by whom local politicians are funded as the Electoral Commission releases its quarterly report on party finances.

Party donations for the last quarter of 2021 revealed Alliance received the highest figures outside of public funds at £100,600.

Sinn Fein, which is widely believed to be the wealthiest political party on the island, said it received £11,316 when public funding was excluded. The Green Party has not received any money from private donors.

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The Conservative Party said it had secured £11,591 from private donors, while the corresponding figures for the DUP were £2,000.

Ulster Unionists, the Traditional Unionist Voice and the SDLP, according to the Electoral Commission, received no money from private donations during this period.

The left-wing People Before Profit party, however, received private donations of £5,250.

In total, the nine parties listed in the commission’s latest report received £130,757 from private donors in the last quarter of 2021.

The taxpayer, meanwhile, provided £283,421 for party upkeep, although the Conservatives received no public money as the party is not represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Electoral Commission confirmed yesterday that political parties in Northern Ireland can only accept a donation from an authorized UK or Irish source.

A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said: “Political parties in Northern Ireland are required to verify that all donations received come from one of these authorized sources.

“The 2018 Transparency in Grants and Loans etc. (political parties of Northern Ireland) allowed the commission to publish information about giving and lending in Northern Ireland from 1 July 2017. Previously, we were prohibited by law from publishing any information reported to us by political parties. However, the eligibility rules have applied since 2006.”

But Friends of the Earth, which has campaigned for more transparency in party funding for more than a decade, said foreign money could still seep into the political system, including from the Republic.

James Orr, Director of Friends of the Earth (FOE) Northern Ireland, said: “The current geopolitical crisis makes it imperative that the party funding system is much more transparent and that the light can be shined on everything from potentially black money.

“The Electoral Commission could publish how much money each party receives, but we still don’t know exactly who funds them here.

“On top of that we have a situation where parties only have to report donations of £7,500 on the upside, meaning if you donated £7,499 it wouldn’t be reported. . Given the anonymity of donors in Northern Ireland, this means there is very little about who funds parties.

Mr Orr added that according to FOE calculations based on previous reports, local parties between them raised almost £4m from private donors.

Since 2000 in Britain all major donations to political parties have been public, and it was not until 18 years later that parties in Northern Ireland had to disclose the amount of money they received from individuals, companies or unions.

However, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where the names of private donors remain secret.

The secrecy surrounding donations to political parties in the Province is a throwback to the troubles when individuals who financially supported a party risked becoming targets of Republican or Loyalist paramilitaries.

Between 2012 and 2018, figures released by the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) revealed that Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland received over $180,000 or around £138,000 from its North American group fundraiser, Friends of Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein then sought to defend the funding, claiming that American largesse did not constitute donations but were gifts under £500 and that the party fully complied with the rules on political donations and funding.