DUP’s Brexit ads: Who bankrolled the secretive £435,000 campaign?
A journalist has tried to smash the wall of silence around NI’s record political donation
Peter Geoghegan contends that the money was channelled to the DUP through the official Vote Leave campaign. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Longford-born journalist Peter Geoghegan was sitting in a train carriage in Newcastle just before the Brexit referendum in 2016 when a quest began to unravel a mystery about the Democratic Unionist Party’s role in winning it.
Flicking through a “well-thumbed copy” of the Metro newspaper, Geoghegan, who works now in Glasgow and London, saw the free newspaper’s front page “wraparound” advertisement.
In it, British voters were urged to “Take back control”, the slogan of the official Vote Leave campaign,” Geoghegan recalls in his new book, Democracy for Sale, which is published by Head of Zeus on Thursday.
“I turned the paper over. An imprint on the back said that the advert had been ‘paid for by the Democratic Unionist Party’,” says Geoghegan, a journalist with opendemocracy.net.
It was a little epiphany that ultimately led him down a number of other tracks and has resulted in the book.
Right there, too, is the DUP, which spent £435,000 “on a massive ad campaign promoting Brexit in England. I knew that election spending in the UK is tightly capped.”
“I also knew, having worked as a reporter in Belfast, that political donations to Northern Irish parties were kept secret under anachronistic local laws. Perhaps this was a way around campaign limits?”
So, would he solve the mystery?
In his sleuthing Geoghegan examines how the DUP was “bankrolled by the biggest [political] donation in Northern Irish history” to support the campaign to take the UK out of the European Union.
Geoghegan contends in Democracy for Sale that the money was channelled to the DUP through the official Vote Leave campaign because Vote Leave had almost used up its permitted spending of £7 million.
Vote Leave and the DUP have denied the claim.
Other organisations on both sides of the campaign were allowed additional spending of up to £700,000. The author recounts how he discovered that an uncommunicative organisation called the Constitutional Research Council (CRC) donated £435,000 to the DUP to support the Leave crusade.
To prop up his Vote Leave-DUP connection conviction, Geoghegan writes, “Two months before the referendum, Matthew Elliott, Vote Leave’s chief executive, wrote in an email to senior staff: ‘The DUP also have a £700k spending limit, which can be spent nationwide!’ ”
“At that stage the DUP had yet to register as a referendum participant,” Geoghegan writes. “It only did so in late May. When the CRC started giving money to the DUP, Vote Leave had almost completely exhausted its spending allowance.”
Geoghegan writes how the DUP’s Brexit “spending spree began on June 9th, exactly two weeks before the vote, when the DUP bought £100,000 worth of placards, bags, window stickers, T-shirts and badges from a small branding agency called Soopa Doopa”.
This company was based in the Cambridgeshire cathedral town of Ely. The location and the company was a “surprising choice” for the DUP, thought Geoghegan. The fact that it published more than £800,000 of material for various Leave-supporting groups reinforced his belief that this was part of the alleged Vote Leave-DUP nexus.
Geoghegan portrays Cook as a man who would not have £435,000 to easily hand over to the DUP. He is convinced the CRC money came from other sources
Two days before polls opened, Geoghegan writes, the CRC donated a further £334,993 to the DUP, much of which was spent on the wraparound ad in the Metro – a paper that does not circulate in Northern Ireland.
He also says the DUP spent £32,000 on digital advertising through a Canadian company called AggregateIQ (AIQ) which had “bought millions of pounds worth of Facebook ads on behalf of a suite of pro-Brexit campaigns clustered around Vote Leave”.
The Westminster “fake news” inquiry that began in 2017 and concluded in 2019 heard that AIQ had links with Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm founded by US billionaire Robert Mercer and US president Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, although this has been denied by AIQ co-founder Zack Massingham.
Cambridge Analytica got in serious trouble over allegedly misappropriating digital information, including acquiring the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users.
Geoghegan, following the money trail, writes that “according to Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Chris Wylie, the DUP were simply a front organisation to allow Vote Leave to go beyond spending limits imposed by election laws” – again a charge that Vote Leave and the DUP strongly deny.
Geoghegan explores how the only publicly known person associated with the CRC – the group that gave the £435,000 to the DUP – is Scottish businessman Richard Cook, a Conservative Party activist and Glasgow Rangers supporter.
He is depicted as a colourful figure, who in 2013 jointly founded a company called Five Star Investments with Prince Nawwaf bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, a former director general of the Saudi intelligence agency who died in 2015. Cook held 5 per cent of the shares, the prince 75 per cent, and a third man, Danish national Peter Haestrup, held the other 20 per cent.
Haestrup was allegedly linked to an Indian gun-running case known as the Purulia Arms Drop. Haestrup told Geoghegan he was never charged, had a “100 per cent clean record” and had done nothing wrong. He also explained how the wealth management business did not get off the ground and was dissolved in 2014 after “a lot of good dinners”.
Geoghegan’s work is not helped by electoral law in Northern Ireland or the DUP’s refusal to answer questions
Despite these intriguing connections, Geoghegan portrays Cook as a man who would not have £435,000 to easily hand over to the DUP. He is convinced the CRC money came from other sources. Former Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy told Geoghegan that Cook, his long-time political adversary in East Renfrewshire, was “a bizarrely unlikely middle-man for this sort of money”.
In addition to the £435,000, the author writes about how the CRC made two further contributions to the DUP after the Brexit referendum, totalling more than £13,000 – the DUP very generally and impenetrably saying it had used the money to “further the cause of unionism at home and abroad”.
Geoghegan writes that Cook refused to reveal the source of the cash and said that, although he had administered the massive DUP donation, he had never received any money from his involvement in the CRC. “I just run a small consultancy company, doing some waste energy stuff internationally,” he said.
Geoghegan does a lot of mining to find the other CRC backers but, as he admits, the gold seam proves elusive, his work not helped by electoral law in Northern Ireland or the DUP’s refusal to answer questions.
Under previous electoral legislation in the North, political donors during the Troubles did not have to disclose their names or the size of their contributions because doing so could endanger their lives.
In July 2017 that changed when then northern secretary James Brokenshire decided that life had moved on and donation details could be published.
It could have been the moment that changed everything. However, it was not to be. Brokenshire could have backdated that legislation to January 2014, but decided not to.
This led to allegations that he had done a “side deal” with the DUP – a charge bolstered by the fact that this was at a time when the DUP had signed up to a £1.5 billion confidence and supply deal to keep then UK prime minister Theresa May’s Tory government in power.
It prompted former head of the North’s Electoral Commission Seamus Magee to deduce: “The deal on party donations and loans must be part of the DUP/Conservative deal. No other explanation.”
This was denied at the time by DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson.
In his book Geoghegan addresses many fascinating issues in relation to “dark money”, Brexit and political funding
Geoghegan, still chasing, writes how, in mid December 2017, 17 MPs met in a Westminster committee room to consider a legal order that would bring donor transparency to Northern Ireland.
Saying that the failure to backdate the legislation “stinks”, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw added: “The only conclusion that any reasonable person can draw is that the DUP was used, with its knowledge, by the CRC to funnel money to the Leave campaign in a way that to this day keeps the source of that money secret. By refusing to make this provision retrospective, the government are effectively complicit in covering that up.”
In his book Geoghegan addresses many fascinating issues in relation to “dark money”, Brexit and political funding but in the end admits his investigation into the DUP and CRC does did not answer the big question.
The wall of silence could not be penetrated. He concedes, “Just how much control the DUP had over its record donation and how it was spent remains unclear. And who was behind the money is still a mystery.”