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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 January, 2004, 11:33 GMT
Republican fundraising under spotlight

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

It's not often you get DUP and Ulster Unionist MPs echoing the words of Dublin politicians, but that's exactly what happened in the House of Commons during the first Northern Ireland Questions of the year.

David Burnside and Jeffrey Donaldson both raised allegations that IRA criminal activity is contributing funds to Sinn Fein's electioneering on both sides of the border.

Michael McDowell
Michael McDowell criticised Sinn Fein 'double standards'
Both MPs were picking up on comments made by Irish justice minister Michael McDowell and Irish opposition leader Enda Kenny.

Before Christmas, Mr McDowell had strongly criticised Sinn Fein over what he suggested were the party's double standards.

How could Sinn Fein TDs complain about supposed corruption in Irish public life, Mr McDowell argued, when their associations with the IRA left them morally unclean?

Fine Gael's Enda Kenny seized on Mr McDowell's comments, maintaining that the Irish Criminal Assets Bureau should be called in to explore, for example, whether the proceeds of a recent massive cigarette theft near Newry had found their way to either the IRA or Sinn Fein.

There's nothing new to allegations from security sources about IRA racketeering.

But the latest concentration on supposedly dodgy fund raising comes as Sinn Fein prepares for yet more elections - this time the Irish local government elections due to take place in June.

Sinn Fein accuses its critics of engaging in "black propaganda" because of their fears about the increasing electoral threat the party poses south of the border.

Accounts

The party has revealed details of the most recent accounts, which it submitted to the Irish Revenue Commissioners.

It demands that its detractors should either put up solid evidence of wrongdoing or shut up if they have nothing more than unsubstantiated suspicions to offer.

Ultimately, it may be up to the police or other law enforcement agencies to solve this argument.

However, the British Government appears poised to move ahead on another related front.

This is the special exemption which enables Northern Ireland parties to raise money from anonymous and foreign donors.

Such donations have been banned in the rest of the UK, but Northern Ireland is treated as a special case.

The argument for enabling people to give to parties anonymously was that naming donors in Northern Ireland could leave them open to intimidation, or worse.

Parties feared that business people who operated in mixed areas would refuse to contribute funds if they believed their identities might be made public.

With the main Dublin parties on the warpath about Sinn Fein's financial clout, the consensus may tip towards ending the exemption and tightening up the fundraising rules
The argument for continuing "foreign" donations touched, predictably, on where should be regarded as "foreign".

For nationalists, banning money from south of the border was politically unacceptable, and could have had serious financial consequences, not just for Sinn Fein, but also for the SDLP which raised a lot of cash from southern Irish donors.

Once the government exempted the Irish Republic, however, it was hard in practice to enforce restrictions on donations from further afield.

The exemption, introduced in 2001, runs for four years and is due to expire in February next year.

However, the government promised MPs they would review the measure, and an announcement on its future could come as soon as next month.

Sinn Fein, which benefits from its considerable fund raising in the United States, wants the exemption to continue indefinitely.

But other parties, such as the Alliance, argue that Northern Ireland should be brought broadly into line with the rest of the UK.

With the main Dublin parties on the warpath about Sinn Fein's financial clout, the consensus may tip towards ending the exemption and tightening up the fundraising rules.

Government sources say no decisions have yet been made, but the days of republicans feeling free to milk the Irish-American cash cow could be numbered.




SEE ALSO:
Exit of sceptical politicians
10 Jan 04  |  Northern Ireland
Analysis: Why deal stalled
23 Oct 03  |  Northern Ireland
'No secret decommissioning'
05 Nov 03  |  Northern Ireland
Ahern 'foresaw arms deadlock'
22 Oct 03  |  Northern Ireland
Analysis: NI's new political landscape
01 Dec 03  |  Northern Ireland


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