Cate McCurry, PA
The Standard in Public Office Commission (Sipo) has said it will not make changes to its guidelines for the disclosure of accounts by political parties, despite concerns raised about parties operating in multiple jurisdictions.
In its annual report, the ethics watchdog said it has reviewed its guidelines for the preparation of annual audited statements of account by political parties.
The review came after concerns were raised about political parties who work and contest elections in multiple jurisdictions.
A number of concerns were raised with Sipo after a British man left €2 million to Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin was able to accept the windfall in the will in Northern Ireland but was not able to accept it in the Republic.
The gift was made by William E Hampton and was the largest donation given to a political party in the North.
Sipo accepted Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald’s position on the donation and that there are “effectively two Sinn Feins”.
In its report published on Tuesday, Sipo said political parties must operate controls that ensure there are no “cross-border transactions that are illegal or improper”.
The Electoral Act 1997 provides for the disclosure of annual statements of accounts by political parties, as well as the keeping of accounting records, and for the audit of the statements of accounts by statutory auditors.
The Act requires that the accounts comply with the requirements as to form and content provided for in guidelines issued by the commission.
Sipo said: “In its annual report for 2020, the commission noted concerns had been raised with regard to the application of the Acts to registered political parties operating in multiple jurisdictions.
“The commission noted that some political parties registered to contest elections in Ireland are also registered to contest elections in Northern Ireland and that as a result, they must organise and operate within two different regimes of electoral regulation.
“They must also operate controls that ensure there are no cross-border transactions that are illegal or improper.
“The commission also noted that where a corporate donor, including a Northern Ireland political party, wishes to give funds to a party, elected official, candidate or third party in Ireland, this would count as a donation and would be subject to the limits and disclosure provisions set out in the Act.
“The commission indicated that it would review its guidelines for the preparation of annual audited statements of account by Irish political parties in light of the issues raised about parties operating in multiple jurisdictions.
“Having conducted this review, the commission has decided that changes to the current guidelines for political parties’ statements of account are not required.”
Fine Gael Senator Barry Ward told the PA news agency that Sipo should have the power to look for proof as to where donations have been spent.
He added: “The main issue that arose was the bequest that was made to Sinn Féin from this man in Wales was left to Sinn Féin in the Republic of Ireland, not Northern Ireland.
“Sinn Féin are obviously not entitled to receive that amount of money from a single donor in the Republic of Ireland.
“So that was a problem for them and they then took that money into their coffers in the North.
“The problem I have is that there are just no guarantees from Sipo’s perspective of how that money is spent and no guarantees that it isn’t spent in any way on political activity in the Republic, which they would not be entitled to do.
“In the absence of having a sequence of accounts and things like that it’s very difficult for Sipo to be satisfied about that.”
Mr Ward added: “The purposes of Sipo is not to just accept political parties’ word for it, it was always that they would be able to make decisions, and they make decisions all the time when complaints are made to them.
“The idea is there’ll be an independent body that would not just take political parties’ words for it, but would actually have the power to look beyond the word and look for actual proof or a demonstration that something has been done or something hasn’t been done, depending on which it was.
“I would much rather they did that and to just accept any parties’ word, and I’m not saying it’s particular to Sinn Féin, because it’s as much for Fine Gael or Labour or Social Democrats or whoever.
“There should be a mechanism whereby Sipo satisfies itself not just of the undertaking of the political party, but the actual state of fact as to what they did or didn’t do.”
Sinn Féin has been contacted for comment.