The Electoral Commission has said that it will not begin an investigation into the single biggest donation in the history of Northern Ireland politics – £435,000 given to the DUP during the Brexit campaign to fund campaigning in Great Britain.
The donation has long been the subject of 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 Northern Ireland’s unique donor secrecy law.
Under pressure to voluntarily reveal the donor, last year the DUP revealed that it came from the Constitutional Research Council (CRC) in Scotland, a virtually unheard of entity with just one known member – former Scottish Tory candidate and businessman Richard Cook.
However, it appeared that the CRC had not been the original source of the money. Mr Cook and the DUP have always said that the donation met every legal requirement.
On June 26, BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight investigative programme broadcast a report which suggested that the DUP incurred joint spending with other EU referendum campaigners but did not declare it properly. Mr Cook has threatened to sue over the programme.
The Electoral Commission said it had asked the BBC for “further evidence” but was told that there was no “significant information” other than what was in the programme. The commission said it had considered other potential sources of evidence but “concluded it does not have grounds to open an investigation”.
It concluded by drawing attention to the government’s decision last year to ensure that donors – including the donation in question – made in the years prior to last year cannot be named.
DUP MP Gregory Campbell, a vocal critic of the BBC, said the Electoral Commission’s statement was the “latest embarrassment for the BBC” which “now begs a series of questions for the publicly funded BBC”. He asked if the BBC would issue a detailed breakdown of the amount of public money spent on producing the programme and why the programme was “fronted by a self-confessed ‘EU Remain’ campaigner”?
The programme was presented by Jim Fitzpatrick, BBC Northern Ireland’s highly experienced former business and economics editor who did the Spotlight programme on a freelance basis. But the DUP drew attention to multiple anti-Brexit tweets which Mr Fitzpatrick – who has since deleted his Twitter account – wrote in the wake of the EU referendum, one of which linked to a pro-Brexit column by Boris Johnson three days after the referendum and described the senior Tory as “a delusional moron”.
A BBC spokesman said the programme “raised important issues of public interest” and kept by BBC editorial guidelines, including those relating to accuracy and independence.