A High Court challenge to Brexit which has been fronted by several Northern Irish political parties is actually being funded with money which comes from a US billionaire, it can be revealed.
Although it was not referred to in court nor publicised ahead of the case beginning on Tuesday, the News Letter has established that the money for the case has come from Chuck Feeney.
The octogenarian businessman made his fortune in duty free shopping but has for 30 years been giving it away to what he sees as good causes.
Over more than a decade, Mr Feeney has given almost $570 million to various groups in Northern Ireland through a number funding vehicles, at least one of which has been picking up the legal bills for the Belfast High Court challenge.
Although the money has come from Mr Feeney, it is not clear whether he personally supports the case, as his philanthropic support largely involves handing over large grants to organisations which he has set up and which then decide on how it is spent.
A more far-reaching case – which argues that Northern Ireland should be able to veto the entire UK leaving the EU and which was heard concurrently at Belfast High Court – has been taken by victims’ campaigner Raymond McCord using legal aid, a fact which has been criticised by the DUP, the largest party in Northern Ireland which supported Brexit.
But although that was known from the outset, the funding of the politicians’ case has been less transparent.
The litigation against the government is backed by Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Green Party as well as Alliance MLA David Ford.
They are attempting to force a House of Commons vote before the Prime Minister can trigger Article 50 and lawyers for the parties also argued that in such circumstances the Stormont Assembly in Belfast should be asked to vote on the issue.
On the opening day of the case, the News Letter asked each of the parties who was funding the action.
Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd initially said that it was being paid for by “a group of interested citizens who have come together to fund this case”.
The SDLP said that the case was funded by a not for profit company, Public Interest Litigation Support (PILS) but has declined to say whether it is contributing financially.
Former Alliance leader David Ford told the News Letter: “My understanding is that all of the costs are being met by philanthropic bodies and I have not been asked to make any personal contribution.”
Green Party leader Steven Agnew said: “A significant amount of the work is pro bono as well as funding from PILS, Atlantic Philanthropies and the Human Rights Consortium.”
The case is also being supported by the Human Rights Consortium. However, there was no one available at the organisation yesterday who could clarify whether it is contributing financially.
PILS, Atlantic Philanthropies and the Human Rights Consortium are all either wholly funded by Mr Feeney or distribute his money.
A member of staff at the Dublin office of Atlantic Philanthropies – which says that a core purpose of its giving is to “strengthen democracy” – said that to the best of her knowledge the body had not been directly involved in financing the case and that any money allocated to it would have been a matter for PILS.
A spokeswoman for the PILS project told the News Letter: “PILS has provided limited financial support to assist the case being taken and all media enquiries should be directed to the legal team.”
When asked how much money was involved, she said: “I’ve only been authorised to give you that information which I’ve told you,” adding that further questions should be directed to Belfast legal firm Jones Cassidy Brett Solicitors.
However, when the firm was contacted a receptionist said that none of its lawyers who are dealing with the case are contactable as they are out of the country.
The accounts of PILS, which is registered as a company, show that earlier this year it had more than £600,000 in the bank.
Since 2007, Mr Feeney has given more than £2.2 million to PILS “to support the advancement and protection of human rights through promoting use of strategic litigation in Northern Ireland.”
And he has given more than £2 million to the Human Rights Consortium to “continue and complete its campaigning work and to deliver the clearest possible message of public support for a Bill of Rights”.
North Antrim MLA Jim Allister, a veteran QC who has publicly vowed to eat his hat if either of the anti-Brexit cases succeed, said: “Isn’t it rather telling that none of the applicants are risking any of their own money in this?
“Rather, they are mere front men. I think they know that it is a pretty hopeless case – if they believed otherwise, wouldn’t they be prepared to stand over it themselves financially?
“It also raises the question of what else has been funded by this outfit.”
The former MEP, who campaigned for Brexit, also said that he was “outraged” that legal aid had been granted for Mr McCord’s challenge to the outcome of the referendum being implemented by the government.
“It is outrageous that the public purse is paying one penny towards this,” he said.
How the case unfolded: