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Democratic Unionist Party Brexit campaign manager admits he didn’t know about its mysterious donor’s links to the Saudi intelligence service

Jeffrey Donaldson MP should have ensured that a £435,000 donation his party accepted came from a legitimate source. Did he?

As the Democratic Unionist Party’s Brexit campaign manager, Jeffrey Donaldson was in charge of making sure due diligence was done on all donations. But the Lagan Valley MP has admitted he didn’t know that the man who fronted a £435,000 donation to his party just weeks before the EU referendum had close links to the Saudi Arabian intelligence service.

And he has claimed he ‘can’t remember’ how the party found out about the obscure Canadian company linked to Trump backer Robert Mercer and at the centre of a new Brexit campaign scandal.

In February, on the back of an openDemocracy investigation into their extraordinary campaign expenditure, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was forced to admit it had been paid £435,000 by a previously unheard of unincorporated association called the Constitutional Research Council (CRC). The money was used to help fund “Leave” advertisements across the UK ahead of last year’s referendum.

Now, Jeffrey Donaldson MP has admitted to openDemocracy that he didn’t know that Richard Cook, chair of the Constitutional Research Council, had founded a company in 2013 with prince Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Prince Nawwaf is a former director general of the Saudi Arabian intelligence agency and father of the Saudi ambassador to the UK.

Donaldson’s admission – made when we called into his constituency office in Lisburn, Northern Ireland – raises further questions about whether the party did the proper checks required of it before it accepted the vast donation.

Under electoral legislation, the onus is on the recipient to ensure that a donation is permissible. “If they can’t confirm permissibility, then they need to return the donation,” the Electoral Commission told us, adding that “unincorporated associations can’t act as the agent for an impermissible donation”.

Jeffrey Donaldson’s name appeared on Leave advertisements and materials distributed across the UK, meaning he was legally responsible for the expenditure. The longstanding Democratic Unionist politician has previously said to openDemocracy that “we don’t need to know who made the donations”, a statement that seems to have been directly contradicted by the Electoral Commission.

Being forced to return a donation of this size could leave the DUP at risk of bankruptcy.

Mr Donaldson had also previously complained that openDemocracy is investigating his party rather than its rival Sinn Fein, and said that he could tell why from our correspondent Peter Geoghegan’s Irish accent.

After the exchange took place, openDemocracy followed up with Jeffrey Donaldson to ask how the party found out about the obscure Canadian company Aggregate IQ. Aggregate IQ has been at the heart of the Observer’s investigation into the Leave campaign’s use of companies involved in ‘psychological warfare’ techniques, and was also used by a number of other Leave campaigns, despite the fact that co-ordination between campaign groups is illegal unless their expenditure is counted together.

Donaldson claimed he couldn’t remember how he heard about Aggregate IQ, to whom the campaign he managed paid £32,750. The party’s total expenditure in its 2015 general election campaign was £58,000.

In the rest of the UK, major donations to political parties are published by the Electoral Commission. In Northern Ireland, they are kept secret, and the only parties to publish their donations are Alliance and the Greens.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said of the video exchange:

“On the one hand, the DUP are saying they did due diligence on this money, yet on the other, they retreat from that and say they are unaware of its background. Similarly, they are saying it is from a legitimate source and yet at the same time saying they can’t or won’t disclose any further information.

“There is a legal duty on parties to know where donated money has come from. Did the DUP accept such a donation without discharging that legal obligation? The party needs to answer and show exactly what checks it carried out.”

Green Party of Northern Ireland leader Steven Agnew said:

“There is a lingering sense of subterfuge around the DUP Brexit donation with such little information in the public domain about the Constitutional Research Council.

“It is important that people understand the links between interests groups and political parties. People deserve to know what strings are being pulled behind the scenes and by whom.

“The Northern Ireland rules on political donations promote shadiness and do not fit within the norms of modern democratic society”.

“While Sinn Fein have questions to answer around their own finances, the DUP cannot deflect the attention that this Brexit donation has rightly received”.

Niall Bakewell, activism co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, who have long campaigned for donor transparency, said:

“Donor secrecy in Northern Ireland was never justifiable. If it’s considered safe enough to be named as an agent or subscriber of an electoral candidate, and safe enough to have prominent, heavily branded shopfronts for party constituency offices on high streets all over Northern Ireland, then why is it not safe to be named as one of the privileged few who can afford to give away enough money to qualify for being named on the donor register?

“Whoever really gave the DUP that money, they wanted to hide under as many layers of secrecy as possible, and you don’t get more secret than the current political donations regime over here.  

“There are serious doubts as to the legitimacy of this donation that could be cleared up if we could actually see the donor register, but thanks to the direct intervention of the DUP, SDLP and UUP in 2013, along with the disingenuous and hypocritical implications of self-imposed transparency by Sinn Fein, the UK government left the door wide open to the kind of scandal we now see unfolding, by shutting the door on access to the donor register for the general public. If they had taken the side of the people over the side of political parties and their wealthy benefactors, then we wouldn’t have so much vital information about the funding of the Brexit campaign hidden away from public view.”

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About the authors

Adam Ramsay is the Co-Editor of openDemocracyUK and also works with Bright Green. Before, he was a full time campaigner with People & Planet. You can follow him at @adamramsay.

Peter Geoghegan is an Irish writer and journalist based in Glasgow. His books include ‘A Difficult Difference: Race, Religion and the ‘new’ Northern Ireland’.

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