The DUP's revelation about their Brexit donation leaves us with more questions than answers...
The shadowy donor group that gave the Democratic Unionist Party £425,000 during the Brexit referendum campaign has links to the former Director General of the Saudi intelligence service – also the father of the current Saudi Ambassador to the UK – openDemocracy can reveal.
The donation to Arlene Foster’s party – which was used to fund key Leave campaign advertisements across the UK in the run up to the European referendum – was initially kept hidden because of Northern Ireland’s donor secrecy laws. However, under pressure from activists after openDemocracy revealed how Brexit campaigners were funnelling dark money through Northern Ireland to fund “Take Back Control” adverts, the Democratic Unionist Party was forced last night to reveal its major donor to be a group calling itself the Constitutional Research Council.
Little is known about the Constitutional Research Council, including where it got these funds from. However, we do know one thing: it is chaired by the Scottish Conservative Richard Cook.
And openDemocracy can reveal that Cook has strong links with Saudi Arabia – which was seen by economists as a likely beneficiary from Brexit.
In 2013, Cook founded a company called Five Star Investment Management Ltd with the former head of the Saudi Arabian intelligence agency, Prince Nawwaf bin Abdul Aziz. The prince’s son is the Saudi ambassador to the UK.
Five Star Investment Management Ltd, was registered at Mr Cook’s Glasgow address and lists as one of its other three initial shareholders HRH Prince Nawwaf bin Abdul Aziz, whose address is listed as a palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, according to filings at Companies House. The firm also filed no accounts with Companies House, and was dissolved in December 2014.
Prince Nawwaf bin Abdul Aziz, who died in 2015, was a senior prince in the Saudi Court, and between 1 September 2001 and January 2005 he served as head of the Saudi intelligence agency. His son, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf Al Saud, is the Saudi Ambassador to the UK.
The weekend after the European referendum, the website Arab News reported the chief economist of Saudi Arabia’s largest bank and other Saudi economists arguing that the vote was good news for Saudi Arabia due to the collapse in the value of the pound. The Saudi Intelligence services have been widely criticised for their use of torture.
Cook has had other business dealings abroad. In 2012, the BBC reported that Cook, through his company Cook Consulting (UK) Ltd, was involved in a £640 million deal with the Port Qasim Authority in Pakistan. However, the company had dissolved by June 2015, and did not file any accounts with Companies House. According to Companies House, Richard Cook has founded a number of businesses in recent years, often listed at the same two-storey house in suburban Glasgow, which 118118 confirms is his address.
How long Cook has been chair of the Constitutional Research Council is unclear. The group has not revealed its membership, and is not a company or a charity. However, it claims to have been set up after disquiet with the pro-union Better Together campaign during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
During the Brexit campaign, the Constitutional Research Council availed itself of Northern Ireland’s donor secrecy laws to donate over £425,000 to the DUP. The unionist party named the CRC as their donors on Thursday night, ahead of Friday’s release of Brexit referendum campaign spending by the Electoral Commission.
How – and why – the CRC decided to donate the cash to the DUP is unclear. But we do know that its chair was not always a fan of secret political donations – back in 2010, Richard Cook ran for parliament in Eastwood, outside Glasgow, he publicly pledged that he would “publish online details of all donations of more than £1,000, in line with Electoral Commission rules”. Cook polled 15,567 votes, finishing second behind Jim Murphy.
The DUP has said that the Brexit campaign funding – which the party refused to disclose until pressure in the wake of openDemocracy’s revelations last week – was “a great success”. "It was right for a Northern Ireland party to put its shoulder to the wheel of the national campaign," DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson wrote in the Belfast Telegraph.
However, the DUP’s revelation that a shady group with no clear history of activity beyond funnelling money to right-wing causes was the source of its vast campaign donation in fact leaves us no clearer about where the Brexit campaign cash actually came from – including any potential links to the Saudi Arabian intelligence agency.
In 2014, the Bureau of Investigative Journalists revealed that the Conservative party had been receiving donations from obscure ‘front groups’, which allow money to be channeled into British politics from unknown sources. If, as seems to be the case, this is what happened with the DUP donation, all that we know for sure is that the true source of the cash hid it in not one, but two loopholes.
The Constitutional Research Council also gave a donation of £6,500 to Conservative MP Steve Baker, as listed in his register of interests. openDemocracy rang his office to see if they could shed more light on who this secretive organisation are. They agreed to look into it and get back on Monday.
Cook, who is former Scottish director of the Campaign Against Political Correctness, former Scottish representative of Conservative Friends of Israel, and former vice chairman of the Scottish Conservatives, has now pledged his organisation will pour dark money into opposing Scottish independence in any future referendum on the question, complaining in the Herald today about the negativity of the Better Together campaign in 2014. According to the paper, the CRC backed Brexit in last year’s European Union referendum after coming to the conclusion that leaving the EU would be good for the Union and "bad for nationalism".
In a statement on Thursday, Richard Cook said: "The CRC exists to support constitutional pro-Union causes. We were delighted that one such cause we've been able to support was the DUP's Leave campaign."
The DUP’s so-called revelation tells us nothing about the true origins of their vast campaign donation. They merely opened one curtain to reveal another behind it. All we do know is that the chair of the front group through which the money came had close business links with the former director general of the Saudi Intelligence Service, whose son is the Saudi Ambassador to the UK.
openDemocracy called Richard Cook a number of times but was unable to reach him for comment. We will continue to try to contact him.