Transparency in politics is an issue that has continued to be at the top of voters’ concerns for many years. Although it has never gone away, it has been brought blazing back into the public spotlight with a recent television investigation looking at how MLAs use public money to rent their offices, among other disclosures.
The revelations contained in the programmes were bad but sadly not surprising for many in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the clandestine nature of political donations in this country compared to the rest of the UK means the suspicion that money buys influence can never truly be dismissed.
That’s why I have diligently pursued the opening up of donations in order to bring them into line. As things stand, whilst donations over £7,500 to Northern Ireland parties are declared to the Electoral Commission, they are not published, as happens in Britain, so the public have no access to or ability to scrutinise this information.
Donor information cannot be published by the Commission even in anonymised form, such is the lack of transparency.
However, earlier this year I achieved a major victory in the House of Commons when I successfully had my amendment regarding donations added to the Northern Ireland Miscellaneous Provisions Bill. Put practically, it means any donations made after January 2014 will eventually be published, whenever the Secretary of State decides to remove the local exemption.
She previously pledged to review it in October 2014, but since that point has been and gone and she has still not made a public declaration as to her intentions, I am now seeking a commitment that she will lift the veil around donations at the earliest opportunity.
The vast majority of people want an end to secrecy about just who is giving money to political parties in Northern Ireland. Alliance already voluntarily publishes donor information on our website but for others, it will take legislation for them to follow our lead.
My amendment went a long way to moving transparency forward and rebuilding public confidence in the political process, but it is past time the exemption was lifted completely.