Withholding the identity of major donors to political parties in Northern Ireland is no longer justifiable, an influential Westminster committee has said.
Anonymising the names of those who have given more than £7,500 to parties should end next year to bring the region into line with practice in the rest of the UK, according to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Confidentiality has long been afforded to such donors due to potential concerns for their safety.
Committee members made the call for change after scrutinising a proposed series of political reforms set out in the UK Government's Draft Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.
The Bill, laid out by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, contains measures that could see the region's Electoral Commission publish further information about donations, though stopping short of revealing names and addresses.
The committee has urged Ms Villiers to go further and introduce full transparency when the current extension to the confidentiality provision expires in October next year. It noted that the number of donations over £7,500 was apparently insignificant and stressed that any move to a more open system should only proceed after the Secretary of State consulted with the security authorities over any safety concerns.
Committee chairman Laurence Robertson MP said: "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." Mr Robertson also urged Ms Villiers to extend the Bill's crackdown on dual mandates.
The proposed legislation will prevent any politician being a member of the Assembly and the House of Commons at the same time. But the committee said this ban should be extended to prevent MLAs also taking a seat in the House of Lords, or the Irish, European and Commonwealth parliaments.
Anna Carragher, electoral commissioner for Northern Ireland, said: "We are pleased that the Committee has supported our call for the full transparency of donations and loans made to political parties in Northern Ireland. Voters have consistently told us that they would like more information on how their political parties are funded. We will continue to work with the Government to ensure that the mechanisms for publishing this information are in place by 2014."
But SDLP leader and South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell accused the committee, of which he is a member, of undermining the spirit of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement with its definition of "foreign" donors and called on Ms Villiers to uphold the right of Irish citizens to support political parties on the island of Ireland.
He said: "For the committee to take this stance and treat political donations within the island of Ireland as foreign is unacceptable and deeply offensive to every Irish citizen."