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Lack of transparency over political funding harms faith in politics

PUBLIC trust in politics, already at a low ebb following the acrimonious collapse of talks at Stormont, has suffered a further blow, this time at Westminster.

The Electoral Commission had been pressing for legislation to allow it to publish details of donations and loans made to Northern Ireland political parties since January 2014.

This would have brought the north into line with rules in Britain.

But, at the behest of the DUP, which props up Theresa May's minority Conservative government, MPs voted that only information about donations and loans from July 1 2017 should be made public.

The DUP has consistently and strenuously opposed any measures to open to public scrutiny its funding between 2014 and July 2017.

This was a crucial period, with two Westminster and two Assembly elections as well as a council poll.

Critically, it also included the 2016 EU referendum campaign, in which the DUP played a prominent role.

There has been intense interest in a hefty £435,000 donation it received from a peculiar organisation which calls itself the 'Constitutional Research Council'.

The source of this obscure group's funding is clouded in mystery.

It does seem clear that its bolstering of the DUP's coffers allowed the party to support the 'Vote Leave' campaign with considerable largesse, most notably through a £280,000 advert in the Metro newspaper.

Explanations from senior DUP figures as to why the party advertised in a London-based publication, which does not circulate in Northern Ireland, have been far from convincing.

Equally feeble has been the party's insistence that the public should rely on nothing more than its own glib assurances about the integrity of the Constitutional Research Council cash.

A public familiar with the party's bluster over RHI and the more recent dispute over the very existence of draft agreements with Sinn Féin may well be wary of such claims.

Nor is the DUP case strengthened by explanations over how it first came to be financially linked to the Constitutional Research Council, or the evasive behaviour of the council's chairman, Richard Cook - a former senior Scottish Conservative - in response to media enquiries.

The clear suggestion from its opponents and those on the 'Remain' side of the Brexit referendum is that the DUP was selected as the beneficiary precisely because less transparency existed around party funding in Northern Ireland than elsewhere.

This week's vote at Westminster, and the manoeuvring around it, indicates just how keen the DUP is to maintain that lack of candour - and how supine the Conservatives are in the face of its demands.

It is difficult to see how any of this can possibly enhance public faith in politics, at a time when it much-needed.

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