HC Deb 26 May 2004 vol 421 cc1549-52
1. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)

What his proposals are for the registration of donations made to political parties operating in Northern Ireland. [174921]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar)

I announced on 6 May that the Government were minded to let the current order exempting the Northern Ireland political parties from the requirement to comply with Part IV of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 expire in February next year. Part IV regulates donations to parties so that foreign and anonymous donations are prohibited. The Government are aware of the reasonable demand in many quarters for greater transparency and accountability. I have invited views from all interested parties on what new arrangements might be made.

Mr. Barnes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us are not opposed to the four Sinn Fein non-Members having facilities in the House, but expect them to be around occasionally so that they can be nobbled and so that alternative positions can be put to them?

My right hon. Friend's financial approach is important. What arrangements are being made with the Republic of Ireland to ensure that massive donations to Sinn Fein from Canada, America, New Zealand and Australia are prevented in both jurisdictions?

Mr. Spellar

My hon. Friend will know that since the original disapplication the situation in the Republic has changed, and greater restrictions have already been imposed. He will also know that in the United States contributions from foreign nationals have been prohibited for more than 30 years. That includes Governments, companies and individuals.

It is for those who wish to have a unique position in Northern Ireland to make the case. We recognise that there are some special circumstances, but given the law in the United Kingdom and in the Republic—and, as I have said, in other countries, notably the United States—those who want the current exemptions to continue must try to make that case.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP)

We welcome the Government's move to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom in this regard, but is there not a greater problem—the substantial funding that one political party, Sinn Fein-IRA, receives from the criminal activities of its paramilitary wing? I recently met the Irish Justice Minister, Michael McDowell. He said that the IRA, through its criminal activities, was raising between £10 million and £20 million a year, much of which was channelled into Sinn Fein's political activities. Is that not where action is needed, to end that criminal activity and the funding of Sinn Fein through its criminality?

Mr. Spellar

Of course, the first aspect is to prevent the criminal activity in the first place, rather than the application of the funds. As I said in my previous answer, there are strong arguments for greater transparency in funding. Candidates and parties have to file election returns, which can be open to challenge and investigation. There are several avenues; this is just one of them. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, this is part of an approach to dealing with criminality by paramilitary groups not just in Northern Ireland, but in the Republic of Ireland, too.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP)

In view of that last reply and the fact that the Government believe, as confirmed by the Independent Monitoring Commission, that certain political parties and paramilitaries are one and the same thing—IRA-Sinn Fein, the Loyalist Volunteer Force-Progressive Unionist party—will the Minister explain how he is going to monitor the funding arising from paramilitary activities to the particular political wing of the organisation? How can that be done? Will he set in train any further legislative requirements to pursue that—either through statute or by criminal investigation?

Mr. Spellar

I certainly look forward to seeing the responses from all political parties to my proposals on political funding and the expiry of the current regulations in February next year. I am also minded that there are special circumstances—the hon. Gentleman will be aware of them—involving the intimidation of donors in Northern Ireland, and I recognise the particular relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the special relationship that citizens of the Republic of Ireland have on the electoral register of the UK more widely. I am aware of the difficulties, but, equally, I am strongly persuaded of the desirability of having the greatest possible amount of transparency in order that the undesirable activities that the hon. Gentleman identified can be exposed and, hopefully, prevented.

David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP)

I welcome the Minister's response. Anything that brings greater uniformity across the UK on the registration of political funding is, I believe, to be welcomed. However, the important point is about the sourcing of the political funding of political parties. The Minister will realise that many courageous journalists in newspapers such as theSunday World and theIrish Independent have made serious allegations about the sources of funding of Sinn Fein. Can the Minister be more specific and give the House a commitment that he will speak to the Chief Constable and the chairman of the Electoral Commission to ensure that the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Electoral Commission investigate the criminal funding of what should be normal democratic activity in Northern Ireland, which Sinn Fein does not carry out?

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. My point earlier—in response to the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson)—was that the initial criminality and its gains are the first matter of concern for the PSNI and, indeed, for the authorities in the Irish Republic. Co-operation between those forces against the criminal activities of all the paramilitary groups, which are extorting considerable sums of money from the people of Northern Ireland, is crucial. At the same time, we are looking into taking further measures under electoral funding regulations in order to prevent that money from being diverted into political activity.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab)

My hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) mentioned the Independent Monitoring Commission and the fines that some political parties had to pay. However, is my right hon. Friend aware that some of the voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland are concerned that the precedent established by the IMC might be extended to them, particularly in areas where they are seeking to bring people in, rather than being associated with paramilitary activities? They are worried about losing their funding and jeopardising the good work that they are doing. There is a real fear of a return to the Hurd sanction of political vetting.

Mr. Spellar

I fully understand the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend, and I should be more than happy to examine any specific instances of which he may be aware. We want to enable people who have been involved in paramilitary activity, but who have seen the error of their ways, to play a constructive part in the development of peace and reconciliation. However, we intend to come down very heavily on people who continue to undertake paramilitary activity, to live off their fellow citizens in Northern Ireland and to destabilise the situation.