Despite numerous attempts by right-wing commentators in the United Kingdom to dismiss or downplay the issue, questions about the origins of a mysterious donation used by the Democratic Unionist Party to fund its lone-wolf Brexit campaign in the UK continue to rumble on. Unlike other participants in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, the DUP was allowed to partially shield its financial activities behind special rules operating in the country’s legacy colony on the island of Ireland. During decades of conflict in the war-torn region, the funding of local political parties was hidden to protect the identities of individual donors, who might otherwise have been subject to retaliatory attacks. The Democratic Unionists’ have exploited this security practice to hide the money-trail which led to their anti-EU coffers.
So far what we know is that nearly half a million pounds came from a shadowy body in Britain styling itself as the Constitutional Research Council (CRC). Claiming to be a patriotic association of private businessmen and entrepreneurs with an interest in British politics, the reactionary organisation has avoided any detailed contact with the press. At the moment it remains little more than a title, a handful of names and lots of worried speculation, some of it linking to the intelligence services of the Russian Federation.
The UK current affairs website, Open Democracy, has led the investigation into the DUP-Brexit scandal, often in the absence of attention by any other metropolitan news media who have little understanding of the United Kingdom’s post-imperial holdout in Ireland. A recent article has taken a look at the efforts by London’s so-called Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, to help the Democratic Unionist’s keep their sources of funding out of public scrutiny. Earlier this year the government minister said of the disputed territory that:
“…the political and security context had “changed significantly” and there should be reform of the practice that protects the identities of donors and lenders who give money to political parties in the province.
From provisional power already available to him in a 2014 law, Brokenshire could decide to deliver “full transparency” of political donations dated from then. All donations to Northern Irish parties have been recorded by the Electoral Commission since 2014 on the assumption that they will one day be published.
…only the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) wants any back-dating to be ruled out.
Northern Ireland ministers are now ignoring what the leaders of Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, and the Greens have been telling them in recent months.
Why? Before the 2016 referendum on EU membership, the DUP took a £435,000 campaign donation from a one-man-band organisation based in Glasgow, the Constitutional Research Council (CRC). The money was barely spent on Brexit campaigning in Northern Ireland, it was mostly spent in England, Scotland and Wales.
The Electoral Commission, unable to legally identify the CRC or its chair, Richard Cook, has said nothing. But others have. A record £6,000 fine levied by the commission in August this year over unspecified “failures” to comply with electoral laws, was, we discovered, linked to the CRC. An investigation into the donation is continuing.
Why was the money channelled through the DUP? And where, precisely, did it come from?
The DUP’s version of transparency goes only so far. They want what was previously sealed to remain sealed. And now that its 10 MPs are propping up May’s minority Tory government – in exchange for an extra £1 billion kicked into Northern Ireland’s budget – they assume Brokenshire and the Westminster government are, according to one former NIO official, “sensitive to their needs”.
Until the fiscal accounts of the Democratic Unionist Party and the furtive Constitutional Research Council are subject to proper scrutiny, we will never know where the budget for the DUP’s advertising blitz in the 2016 plebiscite came from. Meanwhile, suggestions that the cash channelled through the CRC to the DUP, and then into the Brexit campaign, came from Russian business interests with links to the Kremlin are as good a guess as any.
UPDATE: The Electoral Commission in the United Kingdom has released the official record of the amounts spent during the 2017 general election by the local parties in the UK-administered Six Counties. It makes for some interesting reading. The headline figure to my mind concerns the Democratic Unionist Party and its total expenditure of £21,802 during the short campaign. That is just 5% of what the pro-union party spent on its anti-European Union activities during the 2016 Brexit referendum!