Voters in Northern Ireland demand more transparency in politics

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 5th March 2021

New research by the Electoral Commission has shown the public in Northern Ireland wants to see more transparency in politics.

The research, conducted by Ipsos Mori through a series of online focus groups, asked people about their awareness of, and attitude towards, the financing of political parties, the reporting and publication of such information, and the public’s confidence that it is done transparently.

Perceptions of political transparency

The findings show that the public strongly supports transparent, unbiased information about how political parties are funded in Northern Ireland, but that there is currently very little awareness around and knowledge of party funding and the regulation thereof. Respondents viewed donations through a negative lens, associating them with ‘back-handed’ deals and political favours, but were also generally happy for parties to receive donations as a means to operate provided that there was transparency and accountability over where donations came from and how they were spent.

While the research found that some respondents’ perceptions of party finance transparency improved once they obtained more information, most respondents still thought the current regime is lacking in transparency. The research highlighted three reasons for this:

  • The fact that amounts under £500 are not considered donations, creates a perception among the public that there is a ‘loophole’ which can be exploited.
  • Donation thresholds were considered to be too high and should be lowered so as to ‘deter corruption, enhance transparency and reinstate trust in the political process in Northern Ireland, which could in turn increase political engagement and voter turnout’.
  • Donations made between 2014 and 2017 not being published, with the majority of respondents being in favour of making this information public as an important step to enhance transparency.

The reform of party finance laws

Transparency of party finance in Northern Ireland has undergone significant changes in recent years. The Transparency of Donations and Loans etc. (Northern Ireland Political Parties) Order 2018 put an end to secrecy over political party donations and allowed the Electoral Commission to publish information about donations reported by political parties and other regulated entities since July 2017. Prior to this and unlike the rest of the UK, political parties were still required to report this information to the Commission, but the identities of party donors could not be published for security reasons.

Legislation, originally passed at Westminster in 2014, would have allowed for information on donations reported to the Commission from 2014 (the end of the historic confidentiality period) to be published, but this was resisted by the UK government once the order was finally passed in 2018. The consequent lack of transparency around donations made in 2014-2017 has received considerable attention, given that it meant that donations made during the EU referendum could not be made public, and many, including the Electoral Commission, have called on the government to bring forward legislation to allow the Commission to publish such information and ensure full transparency around party funding from 2014.

Why reform is needed across the UK

While the findings of the Electoral Commission’s research relate only to the specific case of Northern Ireland (whose troubled history meant that there had to be donor secrecy for many years), they do provide further evidence for the fact that, throughout the UK, current political campaigning rules, including on reporting donations, are not fit for purpose. For example, as we highlighted in our Democracy in the Dark report, the £500 donation threshold is dangerously outdated and constitutes a potential loophole which can be easily exploited by splitting up big donations into smaller ones and thus evading scrutiny.

Further, the importance of making sure that our independent elections watchdog can perform its role of regulating political finance and ensuring confidence in political processes effectively was also highlighted in the research. Indeed, though respondents were relatively unfamiliar with the Electoral Commission and its role, they were reassured to know that there is an independent watchdog overseeing and regulating political party finance, and many felt that the Commission should enhance its public profile and regularly communicate information about party finances to the general public.

In Northern Ireland and across the UK, voters deserve transparency over who is steering our political debate.

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