Northern IrelandWritten memorandum from Friends of the Earth

1. Introduction

1.0.1 In this document we will answer the questions:

“Are the proposals in the draft Bill sufficient to balance the dual objectives of increasing transparency of political donations and providing proportionate protection to past and present donors? Could they be improved, if so how?”

1.0.2 For the purpose of brevity when we refer to donors in this document, we mean donors and lenders; and, when we mention the amount £7,500, this also refers to £1,500 to an individual or accounting unit.

1.0.3 We will argue that Clauses 1 and 2 should be rewritten to guarantee absolute transparency for all major donations to Northern Ireland parties given after 1 October 2014, and the release of as much information about donors who gave during the Prescribed Period as is possible without risk of legal action against the UK Government.

1.1 False dichotomy

1.1.1 There is no need to, “balance these dual objectives,” because political donors and lenders don’t deserve any more protection than the rest of us, and never did. Parliament’s duty should be to adequately protect the people of Northern Ireland from the toxic effects of secret party funding—an issue that blighted politics in Great Britain in the mid to late 90s.1

1.2 Injustice compounded by anomaly

1.2.1 Friends of the Earth believes that it is regrettable that we must respond to this consultation at all. There was no need for Parliament to pass Section 14 of the 2006 Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, and Schedule 1 of Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000, for reasons we will lay out below.

1.2.2 The injustice of the “Prescribed Period” introduced by these measures was compounded by the insertion of a sentence in Part 3, point 10 of the explanatory notes of the 2006 Miscellaneous Act, which states:

“However, to guard against intimidation of legitimate donors, reports submitted before the end of October 2010 (or later, if this period is extended with the approval of Parliament) will remain confidential”
Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006

1.2.3 In that one sentence the Government made a promise to those who gave large donations to Northern Ireland parties during the Prescribed Period that their identities would never be revealed, but the legislation itself made no provision for this promise to be kept. Were the Prescribed Period to lapse, the donor register from 1 November 2007 would be automatically available to the public, and party benefactors may have grounds to take legal action against the UK Government.

1.2.4 The Government should not have interpreted the legislation in this way. The information on the donor register from 1 November 2007 should be the public property of the citizens of the United Kingdom. To draw such an inference without the legislative provision to honour it was a dereliction of duty on the part of those who wrote the explanatory note.

1.2.5 The unintended consequence of the discrepancy between the promise made by the explanatory note, and the lack of power to deliver on that promise in Section 14 of the Act, was to require repeated renewals of the Prescribed Period, and new primary legislation—a waste of Parliament’s time and taxpayers’ money.

1.3 The bare minimum

1.3.1 We believe that the Government must now seek advice as to how much information they can release from the 2007–14 Northern Ireland political donor register without fear of legal challenge. This should then inform what measures need to be taken in the 2013 Bill to apportion Prescribed Period donors the minimum protection to which they are entitled as a result, but no more. The Government’s only concern should be to protect itself from legal action, and not at all to protect Prescribed Period donors from public scrutiny.

1.3.2 This does not change the fact that Parliament never needed to enact the Prescribed Period in the first place, and could have automatically extended the principle of transparent political funding to Northern Ireland without the temporary measures of Section 14 and Schedule 1.

2. Why we never needed the Prescribed Period Part 1—It’s safe enough for everyone else in Northern Ireland

2.1 Why disapplication was acceptable

2.1.1 There are two main reasons why Friends of the Earth agrees with the decision made in 2000 to temporarily disapply from Northern Ireland the clauses of the Political Parties, Elections, and Referendums Act that dealt with political donations when they came into law in 2001:

(1)our devolved institutions were nascent and deserved a settling in period before the stricter provisions of the Act came into force; and

(2)a large minority of our elected representatives were from parties who believed in a United Ireland, and wanted to retain the right to raise funds from individuals and organisations based in the Republic of Ireland, something banned by PPERA.

The second issue required new primary legislation to create a special case for Northern Ireland based political parties. The first issue needed nothing more than the automatic expiry of the disapplication period to come into effect in the middle of the last decade.

2.2 The Prescribed Period—unnecessary and unjust

2.2.1 Instead, Parliament enacted the complicated measures that created the Prescribed Period, and the Government added the anomalous explanatory note mentioned above. The rationale for doing this was that the security situation in Northern Ireland was not yet right for major political donor transparency. The PSNI’s own statistics confirm that a sectarian motive is at play in less than 1% of recorded crime in Northern Ireland.2 Individuals and businesses are more much likely to experience burglary than sectarian harassment.

2.2.2 We have seen no evidence to suggest that those giving over £7,500 a year to a political party are any more at risk than any other willing, partisan participant in Northern Ireland politics. The Northern Ireland Office has never published data suggesting that those who donate are any more at risk.

2.3 Restored democracy and the Chuckle Brothers

2.3.1 Devolution was restored in spring 2007, as a result of the St Andrew’s Agreement, six months before Northern Ireland parties began to register their major donors with the Electoral Commission. In those heady days of the so-called “Chuckle Brothers”—when a sudden warmth and easy working relationship between Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley was portrayed as one of the great political rapprochements of history—the message being given out to the people of the UK, and further afield, was that Northern Ireland was now a peaceful, functioning democracy.

2.3.2 In March of the same year, the Electoral Office in Northern Ireland began compiling, for public information, the names of all sponsors and agents of electoral candidates3. These are people living in the constituency where the candidate is standing, who choose to publicly declare their support for said candidate.

2.3.3 Northern Ireland was a safe place to stand for election, a safe place to declare your candidate preferences on record, a safe place to knock on your neighbour’s door and ask them to vote a certain way, but according the 2006 Northern Ireland Act it was unsafe to be seen to bankroll parties.

2.3.4 To just state the general security situation as an excuse to perpetuate donor secrecy is to discriminate against all other political actors when doling out state protection. Northern Ireland political parties are on the one hand persuading rank-and-file activists that it’s safe to publicly declare their membership and affiliations, and on the other telling Parliament and the media that the threat of intimidation and violence is too great for their wealthy benefactors to bear.

2.4 Exclusive elite

2.4.1 We do not use the term “wealthy benefactors” lightly. £7,500 is much more money than most individuals or organisations have spare in any twelve month period. That amount is over twice what most families in the UK spend annually on food.4 Bear in mind that the Northern Ireland donor register began to be compiled nearly two months after the start of the credit crunch. Only an exclusive elite of individuals and organisations could possibly have had such a surplus of cash during a sustained downturn in the global economy, especially in a region like Northern Ireland, which has been particularly badly impacted.

2.4.2 This is the only factor that distinguishes major donors to parties from all other willing, partisan participants in Northern Ireland politics—their ability to give away substantial sums of money. In politics generosity is a two-way street5, and it is probable that some of these large donations were made with the expectation of some influence being exerted as a result. Some individuals and organisations may have used their wealth to sway the outcomes of our political system in their interests, which could be viewed as a hefty supplement to the universal franchise for those who can afford it.

2.5 Public perception

2.5.1 Even if there has been zero influence brought to bear on our politicians by their benefactors, the public perception that this is the case is enough to damage faith in our democratic institutions, and there is strong evidence that the public believe their politicians to be too open to influence from the wealthy in our society.6

2.6 The risk to all of us

2.6.1 Meanwhile, the same political parties that are telling us we can’t be trusted to know who finances them are entitled to see the electoral register which lets them know where we live. Four of the five political parties that make up the Executive define themselves primarily by their stances on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, and overtly link that to cultural/religious identity for the purposes of electoral success. These parties are able to profile large sections of our population using cultural/religious indicators such as Christian and surnames.

2.6.2 If the security situation is safe enough for electoral candidates to see the names and addresses of citizens, then it is safe enough for citizens to see the identities of our political parties’ major benefactors. If, however, political parties and their benefactors need protection from us, then we demand protection from them.

2.7 A gross injustice

2.7.1 That a privileged elite in our society is permitted to participate in our political system, in a potentially disproportionately influential manner, with the added advantage of being the only political actors in Northern Ireland to do so outside of public scrutiny, is a gross injustice. Clauses 1 and 2 of the 2013 Bill would compound this injustice were they to become law, and therefore must be completely rewritten.

3. Why we never needed the Prescribed Period Part 2—How safe is British politics?

3.1 A calculated risk

3.1.1 In Great Britain if you wish to donate to a party you must first weigh up the potential reward you may receive against the potential impact on your reputation or public perception through your association with an individual or said party. This is a calculated risk, a decision similar to many others a business or prominent individual must take.

3.1.2 Potential donors in Northern Ireland should have to exercise the same judgement as those donating to Labour, the Liberal Democrats or Conservatives. Every political choice a business or individual makes will often be opposed by many. This fact has not inhibited the ability of GB parties to find widespread support.

3.2 Very British dangers

3.2.1 The political process in Great Britain is not without its dangers and certainly not without those individuals and organisations vehemently opposed to its decisions. Whilst we unreservedly condemn any threat to any elected representative we understand some individuals may attract significantly more public ire than their peers.

3.2.2 Controversial groups such as British National Party have publicly registered with the Electoral Commission a list of dozens of individual financial donors.7 These individuals are potential targets for those antagonistic to the BNP’s political position, yet in the interests of transparent democracy their identities must be in the public realm.

3.3 Attempted murder

3.3.1 The 395 MPs who supported the Iraq War have also been subject to intense public opprobrium. This fervour may have inspired the attack on Stephen Timms MP in May 2010, when he was stabbed at his constituency office.8 His attacker stated in interviews with investigating police that it was his support of the war that led her to attempt to murder him. This attack resulted in the removal of a website calling for Muslims to “raise the knife of jihad” against these MPs.

3.3.2 Similarly, this month, Sadiq Khan was threatened by religious extremists due to his support for equal marriage.9 He was told to review his personal security arrangements after an extremist Islamist group posted the following statement online:

“[It’s] time to account these apostate MP’s, they changed something that Allah made Haram [forbidden] to Halal [allowed] by voting for gay marriages.”—www.spectator.co.uk, 18 Feb 2013

There has been no discussion around removing his financial supporters from the public domain.

3.4 Threat levels

3.4.1 In the aftermath of the UK’s worst terrorist atrocity of the 7/7 bombings the public’s ability to access the donor register remained unchanged. Since 7/7 the UK threat level has been set at Critical three times.10 The current threat level in Northern Ireland is Severe, one notch below that. It seems like there is no terror threat level high enough for the GB donor register to be hidden, but no level low enough for the Northern Ireland register to be revealed.

3.5 Adequate deterrents

3.5.1 Donor secrecy is an unnecessary extra layer of protection against crime in Northern Ireland, and is detrimental to transparent democracy and public faith in our institutions. If existing criminal justice sanctions are viewed as an adequate deterrent to crimes against major donors in Great Britain, then they should be considered the same for Northern Ireland.

4. Why donor anonymity is toxic to democracy

4.1 What’s already been said

4.1.1 The Committee on Standards in Public Life’s Fifth Report, published in 1998 is the definitive justification for the principle or donor transparency in the UK.11

It paints a picture of British politics before PPERA that was murky, and lacking in public trust. It also refers to overwhelming public support at the time for transparent party funding.

4.1.2 The 2010 NIO consultation on the issue revealed massive public desire for full transparency.12

77% of respondents to this consultation, who called for full transparency, were ignored. That overwhelming support for full disclosure should have hastened action to rectify the anomaly that was preventing Parliament from letting the clauses in Schedule 1 expire. The two years between February 2011 and February 2013 were ample time to use whatever instrument necessary to sort this out.

4.1.3 Our own findings in our survey on public attitudes to the Northern Ireland planning system speak of a public perception of cosiness between politicians and developers.13

4.1.4 The conclusion coming out of all three of these documents is that the majority of the public want clarity on who donates to the parties that dominate UK politics.

4.2 Voter disengagement

4.2.1 In the last Assembly Election in 2011, just over 55% of the eligible electorate exercised their right to vote.14 That is the lowest turnout in Northern Ireland history.

Public suspicion and cynicism, however unjustified, is toxic to democracy, and every possible remedy should be applied to assuage people’s fears that politicians are not working in the public interest.

4.2.2 In the last Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, over 50% of respondents were dissatisfied with the way MLAs are doing their job, and only 23% were satisfied.15 A culture of dissatisfaction and disengagement is fertile ground for speculation and paranoia, especially in a divided society.

4.2.3 There is no special risk to Northern Ireland donors, and the need to use some mechanism to restore faith in democracy, and minimise the spread of rumour and innuendo, outweighs any short-term negative consequences of bringing the wealthiest political participants in our society into the light of day with the rest of us.

5. Conclusion

5.0.1 There is no logical justification for granting Northern Ireland political parties a unique privilege on these islands to raise funds outside of citizen scrutiny. Parliamentarians have been persuaded to repeatedly grant this privilege on the basis that Northern Ireland isn’t a safe place in general.

5.0.2 We have put our case to you that:

(a)Everyone else in Northern Ireland is expected to exercise their democratic rights publicly, and all registered voters are required to permit any electoral candidate access to their names and addresses.

(b)Nowhere in the UK is particularly safe to be political, particularly during the 12 years since PPERA came into law.

(c)Donor anonymity is antithetical to normalisation of democracy and society in Northern Ireland, while donor transparency has the potential to improve the relationship between the disengaged electorate and our politicians.

5.1 What we want from the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2013

5.1.1 We would like to see Clauses 1 and 2 to be completely rewritten from scratch in order to deliver the following outcomes:

(1)To fix the anomaly between Section 14 and Explanatory Note 10 of NIMPA 2006, so that the Electoral Commission will be able to publish the maximum amount of information about donations to Northern Ireland political parties during the Prescribed Period without the UK Government being open to legal challenge by donors on that list.

(2)To remove the powers of the Secretary of State to extend the end date of the Prescribed Period beyond 1 October 2014, thus guaranteeing that Northern Ireland citizens will face no further period of unjust secret political funding at the hands of Parliament.

5.1.2 It is the duty of the UK Parliament to act as the guarantor of the rights of all citizens of this realm, and never unnecessarily infringe upon them. The Prescribed Period has been, and continues to be an unnecessary infringement of rights enjoyed by almost every other European citizen, and this gross injustice must be stopped at the earliest available opportunity.

5.1.3 Transparency cannot be a halfway house. The information on the donor register is only illuminative when it is extant. To call anything other than full disclosure transparency is disingenuous.

February 2013

1 http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm40/4057/volume-1/volume-1.pdf (Section 4.10)

2 http://www.psni.police.uk/sectarian_incidents_and_crimes_in_northern_ireland_2005-06_to_2011-12.xls

3 http://www.eoni.org.uk/index/elections/assembly-election-2007/ni-assembly-election-2007-candidates-nominated.htm

4 http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/family-spending/family-spending/family-spending-2012-edition/art-chapter-1--overview.html#tab-Household-expenditure

5 http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm40/4057/volume-1/volume-1.pdf

6 http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm40/4057/volume-1/volume-1.pdf (2.3 to 2.7)

7 https://pefonline.electoralcommission.org.uk/Search/CommonReturnsSearch.aspx?type=basicDonationSearch

8 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-11667620

9 http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2013/02/the-threats-to-sadiq-khan-remind-us-of-the-dangers-that-many-mps-face/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-threats-to-sadiq-khan-remind-us-of-the-dangers-that-many-mps-face

10 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UK_Threat_Levels#History

11 http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm40/4057/volume-1/volume-1.pdf

12 http://www.nio.gov.uk/getattachment/58903cde-3ccb-40e1-9960-38f4a0488aac/.aspx

13 http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/reports/public_and_stakeholder_opi.pdf

14 http://www.eoni.org.uk/index/elections/elections-2011-results-and-statistics/ni-assembly-election-2011-results.htm

15 http://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/2010/Political_Attitudes/SATMLAS.html

Prepared 22nd March 2013