The mysterious Constitutional Research Council (CRC) was confirmed in February to have donated £435,000 to the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), of which they routed £425,000 into pro-Brexit ads in London. This spending included a £282,000 advert reading “Take Back Control – Vote To Leave” in the Metro and almost £100,000 worth of campaign merchandise. The donation was made through Northern Ireland, which meant the source of donations was kept secret due to, now repealed, donor secrecy laws that were put in place during the Troubles. The source of these donations was set to be retroactively released, but Secretary of State for NI, James Brokenshire, has since decided against such a move.

We spoke to Niall Bakewell of Friends of the Earth in one of our very podcasts about the issue of the DUP Dark Money – if you skip to 4 minutes in you’ll find Niall’s fantastic explanation. 

The source of the donations wasn’t originally clear due to Northern Irish laws that mean political donors are more protected, but the group has since been named as the Constitutional Research Council (CRC). It is run by the CRC’s chair and former Scottish Conservative parliamentary candidate, Richard Cook, and has been declared by OpenDemocracy as a potential front organisation to fuel money anonymously as it has no formal or legal status and refuses to name its members. The DUP strangely chose not to ask where the money was coming from and just got on with spending it.

Steve Baker, now a junior minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU), received £6,500 from the CRC when he was chairman of the European Research Group (ERG) a pro-Brexit caucus. When Christopher Howarth, the senior researcher for the ERG, was quizzed on the donation by the Observer, he commented that,

“It’s a registered donation from a permissible donor. That’s all the information you would need.”

Richard Cook, Chair of the CRC, spoke to the Sunday Herald about donation, insisting that it was from a legal, UK based donor,

“The CRC is regulated by the Electoral Commission. We operate solely in the UK. We accept donations only from eligible UK donors. We donate solely to permissible UK entities. Any suggestion that we have done anything else is basically defamatory.”

Yet, the legitimacy of the donor does not imply that we have no right to know who is funding politics in the UK. Nor does it explain why the anonymous donor chose to bequeath to a Northern Irish party, more money than they had ever spent on an election, who then proceeded to spend the vast majority on campaigning outside of Northern Ireland. Cook admitted that he had only visited Northern Ireland twice in the past six years, so there seem to be very few reasons to donate to the DUP aside from the transparency laws.

The legal status of the mystery donor(s) also fails to address the other issue at stake here; why the donor will no longer be revealed retroactively following a rule change by the current Conservative administration. The new transparency laws were set to come into effect four years ago, from 1st January 2014 when the law was first passed. However, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, has since pushed the date back to 1st July 2017 following the Conservative-DUP coalition deal (though any connection between the two has since been denied).

The vast majority of the £435,000 donation was spent in mainland Britain, rather than NI, including the pricey wraparound cover on the Metro in major cities in Great Britain. The money was effectively laundered through the Northern Ireland for an anonymous donor by taking advantage of transparency laws that date back to the Troubles.

When asked to comment, the Northern Ireland office said to Channel 4 that James Brokenshire,

“does not believe that it is right or fair to impose retrospective regulations on people who donated in accordance with the rules set out in law at the time”.

Yet the 2014 law demanding full disclosure of donors was clear that donations made after 1st January 2014 would one day be made public. James Cusick of openDemocracy wrote in October 2017,

“openDemocracy has learned that Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Alliance Party, and the Greens have all told Brokenshire in writing or during talks that they want transparency on political donations backdated to 2014, thereby revealing the source of the DUP’s Brexit funding… The Ulster Unionists have also told Brokenshire in private talks that they too do not oppose retrospective legislation and backed a consensus for the 2014 date.”

Blair McDougall, the Labour candidate in East Renfrewshire and former head strategist of Better Together, said: “Anonymous donations were supposed to be left behind when Labour created the Electoral Commission. It was bad enough that nearly half a million pounds of unaccounted for donations was used in the EU referendum.”

It is imperative for our understanding of the Brexit campaign to have total transparency over the funding of the Leave campaigns. Not only that, it is crucial to understand why the Conservative government were keen to protect donors who would previously have been revealed under transparency laws, or why they were happy to change the laws without asking questions. Only when the true source of the donation is revealed, will we get a better perspective on these questionable actions.

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