The DUP dark money scandal has been bubbling along on the back burner for the past few months. Since the wave of revelations last year regarding Richard Cook and the Constitutional Research Council, there has been a slow drip of information surrounding the mysterious Brexit donor. But Jim Fizpatrick and BBC Spotlight uncovered new revelations this week that cast further doubt on the legality of the donation and the practices of Vote Leave.
In February 2017, the mysterious Constitutional Research Council (CRC) was confirmed 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 Metro advert alone cost fives times more than the entire DUP budget for the previous NI assembly elections.
The donation was made through Northern Ireland, which meant the source of donations was kept secret due to, now repealed, donor secrecy laws that were put in place during the Troubles.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 then Secretary of State for NI, James Brokenshire, decided against such a move.
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.
Richard Cook was previously the only contact given for the CRC. BBC Spotlight revealed that the former vice-chairman of the Scottish Conservative Party was not only the contact for the CRC, but that he personally booked the Metro advert, something that the Electoral Commission was unaware of.
Adam Ramsey, a journalist at openDemocracy who has been covering the DUP dark money scandal, stumbled upon two volunteers in Edinburgh handing out “Vote to Leave” material branded by the DUP. Interestingly, the same two volunteers were discovered in BBC news archives campaigning for Vote Leave.
Soopa Doopa, a tiny branding agency based in a house in Ely, Cambridgeshire, was used by Vote Leave, Leave.EU, Grassroots Out, Ukip and the Democratic Unionist Party. Vote Leave spent £637,000 with this agency, whilst the DUP spent nearly £100,000 and concerns have been raised over violations of collaboration laws. Each campaign group was capped at a spend of £7 million, but there is no limit to the number of campaign groups that can support a given issue. There must, however, be no coordination or collaboration between groups, as this would allow unlimited amounts of money to be spent by simply setting up lots of coordinating campaigns.
When Spotlight contacted Soopa Doopa, they found the addressed listed was that of managing director Jacob Scott Paul, who didn’t remember who he dealt with from the DUP. This isn’t an isolated incident, AggregateIQ, a tiny Canadian data analytics firm, were also used by numerous pro-Brexit campaign groups.
Data released by the Electoral Commission (EC) showed that the Vote Leave campaign had spent £3.9million, more than half of its official £7million campaign budget, on services provided by AggregateIQ (AIQ), whilst other affiliated Leave campaigns spent a further £757,750. In total, pro-Leave campaign groups spent 40% of their funds, £6.8 million, on the Canadian company. When Christopher Wylie (the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower) spoke to Jeff Sylvester of AggregateIQ about the DUP, he mispronounced the name and was unable to recall who he dealt from the Northern Irish party. It’s almost as if the DUP weren’t completely in charge of how their money was being spent.
In fact, this is exactly what Jeff Sylvester told Wylie; that the DUP were simply being used as a front organisation to allow Vote Leave to go beyond spending caps imposed by the EC. He told Wylie that they were doing this as part of a common spending plan that was “totally illegal“. This is backed by some AIQ software examined by Chris Vickery – he found no datasets or algorithms with DUP specific labels, just those used for Vote Leave.
Spotlight found that the contact AIQ used from the DUP was Lee Reynolds, a councillor for the DUP. However, at the time Reynolds was acting as the NI director for Vote Leave, rather than in his capacity as a DUP representative. Money was being funnelled from the CRC through the DUP to Soopa Doopa and AggregateIQ into Vote Leave common spending plans, completely disregarding collaboration laws and illegally circumventing campaign spending caps.
Gregory Campbell, the DUP treasurer, was even as bold to state in an interview with Source Material that he hadn’t heard of the CRC and that it was up to the EC to check their legitimacy as a permissible donor.
Next time we will be looking at new revelations on Richard Cook and his shady business background.