The decision by the minority Conservative Party government in the United Kingdom to limit public scrutiny of the Democratic Unionist Party’s finances has drawn much adverse comment and criticism in the UK and Ireland. Previously, the Tories’ parliamentary allies in the House of Commons, along with other political groupings in the British-administered north-east of Ireland, had been exempt from laws requiring them to reveal the identity of their donors. This exemption was a hangover from the three decades of insurgent and counter-insurgent conflict in the disputed region, the so-called Troubles, when political sponsors ran the risk of becoming “legitimate” targets. However the exception was scheduled to come to an end in 2014, bringing the Six Counties into alignment with the electoral laws of the UK.
After much delay, the updated regulations will soon be in effect, with the agreement of all political parties in the British legacy colony, including Sinn Féin. However, at the insistence of the DUP, the laws only apply to those financial contributions made after the 1st of July 2017. Crucially, this means that the unprecedented donations made to the Democratic Unionist Party during Britain’s 2016 referendum on its membership of the European Union will remain largely under wraps. During that plebiscite the DUP channeled hundreds of thousands of pounds from the Constitutional Research Council (CRC), a little-known right-wing think tank in Britain, into its own pro-Leave campaign, without the scrutiny that anti-EU lobbyists in the UK were subject to.
The head of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland, Anne Watt has repeated her demand to the UK government that legislation should be put in place to allow the publication of full details of donations and loans to political parties made since 2014.
The call by Ms Watt was made less than a day after a special committee in Westminster advanced the progress of a new law on political donations in Northern Ireland that will limit full transparency only to funds received after July this year.
By a majority of one, the government effectively succeeded in keeping secret the full details of a £435,000 donation to the DUP that was made during the Brexit referendum in 2016. The majority of the cash was spent on the UK mainland on pro-leave campaigning and included payments to two digital analysis groups currently under investigation by the UK authorities.
The origins and full details of the record DUP donation, were arranged through a former vice-chair of the Scottish Conservatives, Richard Cook, who runs a small Glasgow-based organisation called the Constitutional Research Council (CRC).
The CRC was fined £6,000 by the Electoral Commission in August. However the current law in Northern Ireland protects any details of the fine from being published.
Ben Bradshaw, a cabinet minister in Gordon Brown’s government, and a leading campaigner on transparency, accused the government of being “complicit in this cover-up”. He said if the DUP had nothing to hide, they should “open up” and say where the £435,000 came from.
He told the committee that £282,000 had been spent by the DUP on pro-leave advertising on mainland UK with £32,000 also given to AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica. The two data-mining companies also held lucrative contracts with other pro-Brexit campaigns. Bradshaw said the two companies were under investigation in the UK and USA and therefore there should be concern about the DUP donation.
“The DUP was used by the CRC to funnel money to the leave campaign that to this day keeps the source of that money secret,” Bradshaw said
The Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom represented a confluence of far-right and ultra-nationalist forces in the UK, forces which retain a grip on the present lacklustre government in London, and the entire future direction of that country, to the present day. And, unfortunately, that iron grip includes the British colonial holdout on this island nation.