Party donors in the North 'face terror threat'
on 26/02/2013 12:39:53
Benefactors are not named in the North over fears they could be intimidated, unlike in Great Britain where gifts over a certain amount have to be declared.
Peter Robinson cautioned against a cavalier attitude to full transparency and said business people had been attacked because of their association with the security forces or one section of the community.
He challenged the theory that donors received special favours and said he could not remember any donations to his party worth more than £5,000.
"It is not worth having someone killed or injured to remove perceptions," he said.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers is considering possible changes to how the devolved Assembly at Stormont is run.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs took evidence from Mr Robinson at Stormont today.
The East Belfast MLA, First Minister at the cross-party powersharing Assembly, said disclosing party donations could be seen as indicating a preference for one of the two traditions of unionism or nationalism, thus having a commercial impact.
He said most donations came from individuals within businesses rather than companies themselves.
The Green Party in the North wants to name major donors.
Mr Robinson said: "I don't think we have reached a stage where you could rule out the possibility of being targeted because they are associated with one party or other.
"There is a distinct threat and it is easy for parties who are unlikely to get anybody to donate to them to try and stop other parties from getting donations.
"We have had an ongoing terrorist threat for many decades, business people have been attacked as a result of their association either with the security forces or with one section of the community or the other.
"We cannot be cavalier about these issues, they are very real issues."
Sinn Fein has maintained its position as the wealthiest and highest spending political party in the North.
The Electoral Commission revealed the party had an income of more than £1.2m (€1.37m) in 2011, which it almost matched in expenditure.
Sinn Fein coffers were partly swelled because its elected representatives' salaries are paid directly to the party, which then gives them an "industrial wage" of £22,000 (€229,000).
The DUP also saw its income soar to more than £615,000 (€704,000) in 2011 - a double election year - due in part to increased donations of around £80,000 (€91,000).
But it had a bigger financial surplus than Sinn Féin - almost £171,000 (€195,000) - because its expenditure was held to just over £440,000 (€504,000), leaving a healthier balance sheet overall.
Much of Sinn Féin's money comes from the Republic of Ireland or supporters in the US. Mr Robinson claimed that created an unfair playing field.
"It gives a distinct advantage to one section of our community and in particular one party who operate on an all-island basis," he added.
"If you cannot have some kind of level playing field then it tends to distort."
Mr Robinson said it was useful for MLAs who were also MPs to be able to discuss matters informally with Westminster ministers without the involvement of officialdom but added his party was committed to ending so-called double-jobbing.
He backed the creation of a formal Opposition, possibly with extra funding and speaking rights, instead of having ministers he claimed were effectively in opposition within the Stormont Executive and leaking information to the media for party political advantage.
"If you have people who are quite deliberately being difficult then that obviously puts a brake on the ability of government to govern in a more speedy and better way," he said.
He said there should be 70-80 MLAs instead of 108 and eight or nine departments.
Sinn Féin appeared for the first time before the committee.
MLA Raymond McCartney said donations should be published but if people felt under threat that should be recognised and tested, possibly by the police.
He added: "Whatever reforms are made in terms of size of the Assembly (should) always be made by not undermining the principles which brought about the Good Friday Agreement."