“The publication of Northern Irish political donors’ identities has been postponed to the new year because of a delay by the government in putting the necessary legislation before parliament.
The Electoral Commission had planned to publish information on donors who had given money to parties registered in Northern Ireland for the first time on Thursday.
Ann Watt, the head of the commission in Northern Ireland, said it was “extremely disappointed that we are unable to provide the public with the information they expected on how political parties in Northern Ireland are funded”.
“The continuing secrecy only serves to undermine trust and confidence among the public in the democratic process,” she said. “We were consulted by the Northern Ireland Office several months ago on draft legislation and provided detailed comments.”
The non-disclosure of information on donors to political parties in Northern Ireland dates back to the Troubles. It means that while Northern Irish political parties have to divulge donor information to the Electoral Commission, it cannot publish information identifying those donors.
The provision came under intense scrutiny when it emerged earlier this year that the Democratic Unionist party had spent £425,000 in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum campaigning for Brexit.
Following questions from the media, the DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the cash had come from the pro-union Constitutional Research Council, chaired by the former Scottish Conservative party vice-chairman Richard Cook. The CRC’s donors are unknown.
The majority of the money was used to pay for a wraparound advert in the Metro newspaper, which is not published in Northern Ireland, while £32,750 was paid to AggregateIQ, a social media political consultancy based in Canada, also heavily used by Vote Leave, the official leave campaign.
Earlier this week, the Electoral Commission announced an investigation into Vote Leave over whether it breached the £7m EU referendum spending limit. The official leave campaign spent £6.8m itself and donated £625,000 to a fashion student’s campaign called BeLeave. At issue is whether BeLeave was genuinely independent of Vote Leave: the money it received was sent directly to be spent on social media marketing for AggregateIQ.
A government spokesperson said: “There remains widespread support for full transparency among the people of Northern Ireland.
“In line with that aim, we have brought secondary legislation before parliament that would provide for the publication of all donations and loans received by Northern Ireland parties.”
The Electoral Commission then updated its position in a second statement from Watt: “We are pleased that the UK government has acted to make this important change a reality. Transparency in how our political parties are funded is key to ensuring public trust and confidence in the democratic process.”