Brexit: £435k donation to DUP ‘permissible’ under law

The wrap-around advert taken out by the DUP in the London-based Metro newspaper
The wrap-around advert taken out by the DUP in the London-based Metro newspaper

The Electoral Commission has said it is satisfied that money donated to the DUP for use in pro-Brexit advertising was legally permissible.

The DUP was handed £435,000 by the Scottish-based Constitutional Research Council (CRC), the single largest donation in the history of Northern Ireland politics.

Some £425k was spent on a series of pro-Leave adverts, including £282k on a wrap-around ad in the London-based Metro newspaper urging voters to ‘Take Back Control’.

The donation by the CRC has been dogged by controversy, with suggestions that the money was given to the DUP to circumvent donor transparency rules in the rest of the UK and take advantage of the Province’s unique donor secrecy law.

Earlier this year, legislation was passed at Westminster to allow donations and loans of more than £7,500 to parties in NI to be revealed for the first time.

However, the law only covers donations made to parties from July 2017 onwards, meaning the CRC money to the DUP is exempt.

The CRC is a little known group of pro-union business people chaired by former Scottish Conservatives chairman Richard Cook.

However, it appeared that the group had not been the original source of the money to the DUP. Mr Cook and the DUP have always said that the donation met every legal requirement.

In evidence to the Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday, the Electoral Commission’s CEO Louise Edwards said the body had received quarterly reports from the DUP about the donations they were given.

She told MPs: “If we discover a donation in one of those reports is impermissible then the restrictions are lifted and we can talk about that donation.

“We cannot talk about donations to the DUP from that period and the reason for that is because having verified those reports the donors on them were permissible.”

SNP MP Brendan O’Hara pressed the Commission on the issue, asking if it had done everything it could to check the money which went to the DUP was “not of foreign origin” and was permissible under UK law.

The Commission’s head of regulations, Claire Bassett replied: “We were satisfied that the donors were permissible”.

But she also spoke of her “frustration” that the body is not permitted to publish the identities of donors to NI parties prior to July 2017, adding: “We are restricted by law in what we can say. It is as frustrating for us as it is you.”

Ms Edwards also spoke of the “lack of transparency” surrounding political donations in NI during that period, a situation which Mr O’Hara branded “intolerable”.

He also enquired about allegations contained in a recent BBC NI Spotlight programme regarding whether there was a common plan between the DUP and the EU referendum campaign group, Vote Leave.

Ms Edwards said the Commission had determined there was insufficient evidence to warrant an investigation.