Leave campaigners in Edinburgh - picture, Adam Ramsay
The first question was the one I’d asked the two Brexit campaigners outside Edinburgh’s Waverley station.
They began by talking about democracy. But when I pressed, their rage switched to refugees. And it was then, in the middle of a question about an Afghan family I’d met in Belgrade, that I spotted the imprint.
The small text at the bottom of the poster they were holding said “printed and promoted by J Donaldson, Democratic Unionist Party”.
“Do you know who the DUP are? Do you know who Jeffrey Donaldson is?”.
As I walked home, the second question occurred to me:
“Why is a Northern Irish party paying for campaign materials in Edinburgh?”.
And, as I unlocked the door to my tenement stairwell, the intriguing answer replied: there is no donor transparency in Northern Ireland. Someone is using them as a front to funnel secret money into the referendum campaign.
The next day, a few journalists tweeted a photo of a wrap-around Metro advert, also paid for by the DUP. Most treated it as the kind of odd thing that those strange parties in Northern Ireland do. Most didn’t ask any more questions. But then, the Democratic Unionist Party, the pro-UK, anti-abortion, anti-LGBT biggest party in Northern Ireland has long benefited from the British media’s two decade omertà about its troubled province.
There was one exception. The Glasgow based Irish journalist Peter Geoghegan had picked up a copy on a trip back from Sunderland. Sharing a photo in a Facebook post, he expressed the same worry as me.
Six months later, I had my first one-to-one with my boss, Mary Fitzgerald, since she’d come back from maternity leave. The meeting consisted of a long list of utterly vital tasks I hadn’t done. And, at the end, as she was calmly trying to get me to prioritise, I said, “oh, and there is one more thing… an itch I’d like to scratch…”.
I explained about the DUP posters and the dark money loophole and my theory about what it meant.
“Holy shit” she said. “Why didn’t you tell me this six months ago?” Six months earlier, she’d been off work with a new-born baby in one arm and a toddler in the other. “There’s a Northern Irish election coming up” I explained. It had been triggered by a scandal around another dubious Democratic Unionist Party financial arrangement: the “cash for ash” scandal. Perhaps we could use the scrutiny of the vote to pressure the normally secretive party into revealing something.
The next day, I rang Peter, and asked if he wanted in.
For our first article, The ‘dark money’ that paid for Brexit we mapped sightings of the Metro advert, dug through Electoral Commission timetables, and figured out that they had definitely spent more than £250,000 – much more than any previous campaign, more than their accounts showed they could possibly afford.
Hours before the first leaders’ debate in the election, we hit publish. In the midst of an election already coloured by DUP corruption allegations, their opponents and Northern Irish journalists were quick to jump on our story.
In the following weeks, pressure built. At every public appearance, Northern Irish reporters would ask where on earth they got all of this cash. At some point in mid-February, the Electoral Commission was due to publish full expenditure figures. Would the DUP come clean before then?
Finally, they said they would reveal where the cash came from.
One Friday morning, I woke up to headlines in the Northern Irish papers. The money had come from a group called the Constitutional Research Council (CRC), chaired by Richard Cook, former vice-chair of the Scottish Tories.
I was furious.
The papers – and the BBC – seemed to be taking this at face value, as though this really was the source of the cash. But, a few years earlier, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism had shown how Unincorporated Associations like the CRC are used as fronts for secret donations.
All the DUP had done was pull back a curtain to reveal another curtain.
Richard Cook, though, is a real person. And you can find things out about real people.
I found him on Companies House. Going through each document, I soon came across a surprising name: Nawwad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Royal Palace, Jeddah.
According to Wikipedia, the (now dead) prince was the former head of Saudi intelligence and father of the country’s ambassador to the UK. What on earth was he doing founding a company with a minor Scottish Tory?
That afternoon, we published again: Secretive DUP Brexit donor links to Saudi intelligence service.
But, who was the third man on those company accounts? Google his name, Peter Haestrup, and you got almost nothing. There was only one other connection on Companies House “Obsidian Fine Arts”. Obsidian, Google said, is a form of glass formed in volcanoes, known for being translucent, but not transparent. Was he advertising his shadiness? But other information was not forthcoming.
Then, Peter rang.
He’d been talking to contacts, and someone had told him that Haestrup was involved with arms dealing in some way. A bit more digging, and he found Haestrup’s connection to a vast gun-running scandal in India in the mid-1990s.
Eventually, he managed to find a phone number for Haestrup in Copenhagen, who told him:
“I was working on the right side that time. When you were working in the intelligence service you have to be on the right side… Have you been a soldier? A lot of things happen in the world… I was involved there but I (have) never been accused of anything.”
We dug out some more details, and ran our next story: The strange link between the DUP Brexit donation and a notorious Indian gun running trial.
I went Northern Ireland, tracking down the key DUP figures to ask if they knew where the cash came from. After hours running round Lagan Valley looking for him, a friend and I finally got into Jeffrey Donaldson’s office in Lisburn, and filmed him claiming he knew nothing about the Saudi intelligence links.
We followed the other two public donations from the CRC. One went to Steve Baker MP, for his work as chair of the secretive pro-Brexit MP faction the European Research Group. We have subsequently showed that a number of Tory MPs use taxpayer cash to fund this hard Brexit lobby group, through their expense claims, and that the ERG has an unlisted office in parliament – and that their increasingly powerful members may be breaking the ministerial code. We showed that Baker has close connections to the arms industry, the American radical right, and even the government of Equatorial Guinea.
The second donation from the CRC paid for a poll during the last Tory leadership election, which boosted the 'hard Brexit' candidate Andrea Leadsom.
Because we’d been repeatedly told the cash came from “pro-union business people” we investigated everyone who gave £25,000 or more to the campaigns against Scottish independence. Only one of them – Henry Angest – wouldn’t deny involvement with the CRC. And he had previously given cash to various of the networks that the other characters all seemed connected to: the Freedom Association, Open Europe and Atlantic Bridge.
Sir Henry Angest, Chairman and Chief Executive of Arbuthnot Banking Group PLC. Image used under Fair Use: Arbuthnot Banking Group PLC. All rights reserved.
A couple of months later, Alastair Sloan and Iain Campbell came to me with questions about Arron Banks and his wealth. It looks like the main funder of the Brexit campaign may not be nearly as rich as he claims. Was he really the source of the £8.6 million he’s credited with giving to various Leave campaigns? Alastair and Iain spent last summer doing a comprehensive assessment of his real net worth, and their article “how did Arron Banks afford Brexit?”, alongside our other investigations, leading Ben Bradshaw to ask Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons:
“Has she seen the very worrying series of reports this week by openDemocracy, on the role of dark money in the EU referendum, including revelations of illegal donations to the DUP and new questions today over the real wealth of Arron Banks, the main financial backer of Leave?
“Given the widespread public concern over foreign and particularly Russian interference in Western democracies, will she assure this house that the government and the Electoral Commission will examine these reports very carefully and reassure our country that all of the resources spent in the referendum were from permissible sources?"
Jim Waterson at Buzzfeed and Carole Cadwalladr at the Observer had raised concerns about huge donations from the official Leave campaign to two smaller Leave outfits shortly before the referendum. With WhatDoTheyKnow, we got all of the Electoral Commission emails about the case, showing that most of this money was paid directly by Vote Leave to the data analytics firm AggregateIQ, never even touching the bank account of its supposed recipient. The Commission reassessed its previous decision that this was all above board, and decided to investigate this, too.
We looked in detail at one of the groups involved in this trick: Veterans for Britain, and found that the people behind the Leave movement weren’t the anti-establishment agitators they like to pretend: they were a very British cast of billionaires and colonels blimp.
Peter spotted that much of the money – from each of the different campaigns – had been used to buy campaign materials from an obscure branding firm in Ely. The company, he pointed out, had seen a huge growth of its income as a result of lots of the different Brexit campaigns ‘spontaneously’ deciding to use its services. So I found myself running around Ely, to its various registered offices, and finding myself outside an obviously empty suburban terrace.
Of course, in the middle of all this was the snap general election which nearly broke Theresa May, leaving her dependent on votes of DUP MPs. It led hundreds of people to contribute cash to our investigation, without which we’d not have been able to do this. And it left the UK government in a tortured position: reliant for its majority on a potent mix of a Northern Irish party that’s been crippled by a string of financial scandals and on the radical right of its own party, desperately pushing their own vision of Brexit.
But here’s the thing. In the middle of all of this, there are people who know where the DUP’s £435,000 came from, and why someone worked so hard to keep it secret. And some of those people might very well understand why transparency matters in politics, why citizens have a right to know who is trying to influence us. If you are one of those people, you can slip us whatever information you have here.
We’ve been running this investigation for a year now, with a growing team of colleagues and helpful contacts. And what we’ve discovered is perhaps not surprising. While the Brexit vote was fuelled by legitimate rage, it was steered by rich and powerful men (and yes, mostly men) who work very hard to keep their interests hidden.
Which means we have to keep working hard to expose them. Starting with the cash which paid for that placard I happened upon in Edinburgh.
Donate to our investigation here, and we’ll keep digging.