In a report published today, 00.01 Monday 25 March 2013, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee recognises that the Draft Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is not intended to reopen the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998, or the terms of the devolution settlement, but rather to introduce a limited number of reforms, and says Northern Ireland should now move towards greater transparency on political donations, bringing the regime into line with Great Britain as soon as possible. Given the apparent insignificant level of donations over the £7,500 threshold, and the overall improvement in the security situation, the Committee says the current position is no longer justified and that from October 2014 all donations over £7,500 in Northern Ireland should be made public.
However, the Committee says the new Northern Ireland Bill should place a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to consult with the appropriate security authorities on the general level of risk to political donors before moving to a more open system. The Government should also use new powers during the period between introduction of the Bill and October 2014 to publish anonymised data, with a view to providing a fuller account of political funding in Northern Ireland.
The Committee recommends that the Secretary of State includes in the substantive Bill provisions to close the current loophole, whereby overseas donations can be made via the Republic of Ireland to parties operating in Northern Ireland.
The Committee supports the draft Bill’s prohibition of dual mandates – where a person is a Member of more than one legislature – but says this must be applied equally and consistently across the United Kingdom, and asks the Government to end the possibility of dual mandates in any of the devolved legislatures with the House of Lords, the Irish Oireachtas, the European and Commonwealth Parliaments.
The Committee says the allocation of ministries in Northern Ireland should remain proportional to party performance in elections. However, in the future, the Justice Minister – a particularly sensitive post – should be appointed in the same way as other ministries and should have the same security of tenure as other Ministers. For now, the Committee says the cross community vote on this appointment should be retained, but the absence of any mechanism to secure the appointment of the Justice Minister in the absence of political agreement is a worry. Government must devise a mechanism that would enable the Justice Minister, and the rest of the Executive, to be appointed in this situation.
Northern Ireland Assembly
The Committee also says the NI Assembly is disproportionately large and that the Government should continue to seek a consensus with the political parties to bring about a reduction in Assembly size.
A challenge for the Assembly is to make governance more effective. The Assembly is itself considering how procedural changes might enhance the effectiveness of scrutiny. Those parties and individuals not represented in the Executive should be provided with the opportunity to participate effectively, although any substantial change towards the formation of an “official opposition” must be guided by the fundamental principles in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. Any such opposition will need to be adequately funded and resourced.
The Government should ensure that any proposal that affects responsibility for the NI Human Rights Commission must be compliant with the Paris Principles. If the Government does seek to devolve responsibility, it must be to the Northern Ireland Assembly, rather than the Executive, and any change should not affect the NI Human Rights Commission’s ability to scrutinise non-devolved matters.
Laurence Robertson MP, Chair of the Committee, said:
"Such tremendous progress has been made in the fifteen years since the Belfast Agreement was signed that is now possible to begin to strengthen devolution and harmonise procedures in Northern Ireland with those in Great Britain. This is not an attempt to reopen the Belfast Agreement or change the terms of devolution, but rather to recognise that the progress that has been made allows some positive changes to be made to the processes of government.
It seems that, with an eye to the security of political donors, Northern Ireland could now begin to move to the same levels of transparency in party funding as in Great Britain. With continued progress and security, the unique position of the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland could be brought in line with other Ministers. Whilst it is important to retain the link between party performance in elections and allocation of Ministries, the Assembly could be made smaller to be more effective and efficient, and ways found to strengthen opposition, as is central to all healthy democracies.
This Bill marks an opportunity to strengthen and build on the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland and we think the time is right for Government to take forward our recommendations to go even farther than currently envisaged."