DUP Treasurer Gregory Campbell. Image, BBC, fair use.
MPs are calling on Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire to use his powers to reveal the names of the secret donors who gave the DUP £435,000 to campaign for Brexit, openDemocracy can reveal today.
In an unprecedented move, an SNP MP has written to Brokenshire calling for the UK government to use existing legislation to publish all political donors in Northern Ireland since 2014.
Last week Brokenshire announced the end of the long-running practice of donor secrecy in Northern Ireland. But he said the new transparency rules will only apply to donations made after 1st July 2017 – which means the source of DUP £435,000 donation can remain anonymous.
Political donations have long been secret in Northern Ireland. In February, openDemocracy revealed that the Democratic Unionist Party received £435,000 for the party’s Brexit campaign. The cash – which was spent on newspaper adverts and campaigning, all outside Northern Ireland – came from a shadowy pro-union group called the Constitutional Research Council. The DUP has since signed a ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the Conservatives to keep Theresa May in office.
In a letter to Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire seen by openDemocracy, Scottish National Party MP Martin Doherty-Hughes says that the public should know who funded the DUP’s Brexit campaign – and points out that the Secretary of State has the power to publish all political donations since 1 January 2014 under legislation that is already on the statute books, but which has never been enacted.
“[I]t is not clear why any new legislation is required at all – under the terms of Sections 15 A and 15 B of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 as Secretary of State you already have the power to introduce donor transparency into Northern Ireland, and can do so presently, without the need for any new legislation,” writes Doherty-Hughes, MP for West Dunbartonshire since 2015.
“There are serious concerns, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere that the UK Government's recent political deal with the DUP contributed to your decision to refuse the public access to information on source of the DUP's record Brexit funding…. In light of these facts I would call on you as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to enforce the laws that already exist, and to ensure that the public know who funded the DUP's Brexit campaign, good governance demands it.”
If Mr Brokenshire presses ahead with trying to pass new legislation, rather than using the existing 2014 Act, the bill he will have to get through the Commons could be amended by MPs to allow for the disclosure of previous donations, which would include details of the massive DUP ‘dark money’ donation.
So far both the DUP and the Constitutional Research Council’s chair Richard Cook have maintained that all existing procedures have been complied with, but refused repeated requests to disclose the source of the £435,000 donation.
Doherty-Hughes told openDemocracy that he was “hoping for an enlightening response from the minister on what was a very unusual decision not to bring this transparency into line with the 2014 act. This is a story which just gets murkier and murkier, and I think nothing other than a full disclosure will satisfy the public's requirement for this transparency."
The SNP MP joins a chorus of politicians and campaigners on both sides of the Irish Sea who have called on Brokenshire to publish all donations from 1 January 2014. Speaking to openDemocracy, Caroline Lucas said: "The Secretary of State should immediately allow the Electoral Commission to publish the details of these donations. A democracy worthy of the name relies on transparency, especially when it comes to donations – and it's absolutely crucial that people are able to see who funded the EU Referendum."
Others have questioned whether Brokenshire’s move is part of an effort by the Conservative government to protect the DUP, whom they rely on in parliament to get laws passed. Last week, Seamus Magee, retired head of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland, said: "The deal on party donations and loans must be part of the DUP/Conservative deal. No other explanation."
Northern Ireland’s donor secrecy is a legacy of the Troubles but publishing recent donations – such as the DUP’s Brexit cash – is relatively straightforward. Since 2014, all political parties in Northern Ireland have had to submit documentation to the Electoral Commission and fulfil all aspects of electoral law, except that the donations were not made public.
As Niall Bakewell, campaigner at Friends of the Earth in Northern Ireland, explains, all Northern Irish political parties knew that donations could be published since January 2014.
“Any donor giving during this period who believed they would be perpetually anonymous only has themselves and the parties to whom they donated to blame for failing to understand this regime,” said Bakewell, adding that when it came to details of donations the UK government had “no reason to keep our property from us.”
Former Labour MP Tom Harris who headed the Vote Leave campaign in Scotland said that he “totally agreed” with the SNP letter. “The legislation is there. I have no idea why (Brokenshire) is not using it. I can’t see what the justification for this is,” Harris told openDemocracy.
“It would be hilarious to find out where that money came from,” added Harris, who in 2001 was elected in Glasgow Cathcart, finishing ahead of Richard Cook of the Scottish Conservatives. Cook, who lives outside Glasgow, has since emerged as the only individual linked to the £435,000 DUP donation. Speaking of Cook’s emergence as a key player in the DUP Brexit story, Harris said: “I said to my wife, ‘There’s Richard Cook in the news. How weird is that’.”
There is near universal agreement in Northern Ireland on ending donor secrecy. According to a Channel 4 News report, all the main political parties want donations backdated to January 2014 – except the DUP.
Speaking to Channel 4 News, Sinn Fein MLA and former MP Conor Murphy said: “The premise under which every party was operating was that legislation... would be backdated to 2014 in order to provide transparency around political donations. The announcement by James Brokenshire in the House of Commons was a surprise to everyone here, apparently except from the DUP – that the start date (for donation transparency) would be 2017, which would obviously exclude any transparency around this particular donation.”
The Northern Irish Electoral Commission has also asked for the power to publish details of donations retrospectively. "Legislation was made in 2014 to enable to future publication of any donations from 1 January 2014 onwards, the Secretary of State has chosen to only publish donations from 1 July 2017," Ann Watt, head of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland, told the BBC recently.
"That means the public... on the current plans, will not see donations over the last three-and-a-half-years. We would welcome full transparency and we would welcome full transparency back from 2014."