Page last updated at 19:18 GMT, Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Call for end to secret donations

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A watchdog says change is needed for NI politicians to win back public trust

"Most people" are in favour of ending the confidentiality surrounding donations to political parties in NI, focus group research has suggested.

It was conducted by the Electoral Commission, which recorded the views of eight groups around NI, each consisting of between six and eight people.

Unlike the rest of the UK, details of political donors are still kept secret in NI, because of security concerns.

The majority of those asked said the confidentiality should be lifted.

In November 2007, new rules came into force which, for the first time, required political parties and representatives in Northern Ireland to report donations and loans to the Electoral Commission.

This information is not made public however, because of the security situation in Northern Ireland and the possibility that political donors could be threatened or intimidated.

This confidentiality clause is due to expire on 31 October 2010.

Expenses anger

The Northern Ireland Office is expected to consult the public on whether the clause should end or be extended further before the end of this year.

In recent months, MP and MLA expenses have come under intense scrutiny, and any consultation would be conducted against a backdrop of well-documented public anger at politicians' financial affairs.

The participants in the Electoral Commission's research acknowledged that intimidation of donors remained an issue in Northern Ireland.

They also conceded that businesses could lose custom if it became known they gave to a particular party.

However, they thought the need for openness and transparency outweighed these risks.

Public trust

Two out of the eight focus groups bucked the overall trend and concluded that political donors should remain anonymous.

Both these groups were based in Belfast.

The issue was discussed at Stormont on Tuesday, when the chair of the commission, Jenny Watson, told MLAs and local political parties that they needed to embrace greater levels of transparency if they were to win back public trust.



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