Alliance Leader Naomi Long MLA has said she believes that a review of the legislation controlling overseas funding of political parties is required, after it was revealed that significant sums of money received by Sinn Féin fall below the threshold for transparency.
The investigation by The Detail website showed the party was able to accept thousands of pounds each year transferred from overseas by the US group Friends of Sinn Féin. While Sinn Féin states the money is made up of aggregated gifts of less than £500, meaning they are not classified as donations by the Electoral Commission, Mrs Long said the situation showed there was still some way to go for full transparency in donations.
“This is a major cause for concern as it relates to well over £100,000 in total, a significant amount of money for any local party. The rules restricting overseas donations are there to prevent any undue foreign influence over politics here, to create a level playing field between parties and to allow the public confidence parties are acting in their interest and not the interest of large donors.
“Transparency and confidence are both being undermined as a result of this process. While small gifts may be individually insignificant amounts, when aggregated they become significant.
“There are major issues for Sinn Féin to answer – how do they verify the significant sums of money being transferred are aggregated small gifts of less than £500 and how can they ensure no single donor can give multiple small gifts, which taken together would exceed £500 in any 12-month period, making them illegal under UK electoral law?
“Even assuming these are all small gifts from different people as declared, they are collected and aggregated by the US group Friends of Sinn Féin. While one small gift to the party would not be influential, a single body collecting, controlling and disbursing them as larger sums to Sinn Féin opens up the potential for that group to influence politics, which calls into question the need for better regulation of agency arrangements.
“Whilst in this instance, it is Sinn Féin being scrutinised, these practices may be more widespread in politics. This situation needs to be addressed, as it undermines rules for overseas donations and also transparency of political funding.
“Having met with Electoral Commission yesterday to discuss how this area of funding might be made more transparent, I am writing to Government to ask that they review electoral law in relation to overseas funds.
“One solution is that all gifts from an overseas source should be regulated, and have to be accompanied by evidence to demonstrate it falls within permissible limits and from a permissible source.
“Alternatively, to limit any potential abuse of the use of aggregated amounts more generally, a threshold for the maximum permissible amount of aggregated small gifts from overseas to any party should be reduced to at least below £500 in any 12-month period. This would ensure the cumulative effect of such gifts did not reach the current threshold at which they would be viewed as significant and remove any accusations of undue influence.
“At a time when public confidence is low and when the spotlight is on overseas influence in our national politics, it is important that we work to maximise transparency and accountability of funding. The public need to know who pulls the strings of those who are elected to represent them.”