Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Fintan O’Toole: Was the DUP involved in Brexit campaign fraud?

The party is implicated in what appears to be a serious undermining of the voting process

The Brexit referendum: one of the most important moments in contemporary British and Irish history. File photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire

There is now a strong prima facie case that the Democratic Unionist Party was caught up in a very serious breach of British electoral laws in the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign. What is not at all clear is whether the DUP's involvement in what looks like a scheme to subvert the law on campaign spending was knowing and deliberate or naive and accidental.

Either way, however, we are dealing with what seems to be the most serious undermining of the voting process in the modern history of these islands. This apparent scheme has momentous consequences for both parts of Ireland. It is imperative that the DUP tells all it knows about what happened.

UK law, as it applied to the spending by the Brexit referendum campaigns, was not hard to understand. There were two official campaigns, one on each side of the debate. Each was allowed to spend up to £7 million. But – and this is where the crux of the story lies – other registered groups or organisations could also spend up to £700,000 each.

There was one absolute condition: they must not co-ordinate that spending in any way with the official campaign. The reason for this is obvious: if allied groups could co-ordinate expenditure with the main campaign, the spending limits would be meaningless.


Funnelling money

The official pro-Brexit campaign, Vote Leave, had a problem, however. There was a real risk it would end up spending more than £7 million – in the event, it ended up declaring expenditure of £6,773,063.

It is now clear that it stayed under the limit by funnelling money to other groups, particularly to a youth group called BeLeave. It is also clear that Vote Leave was banking on enormous last-minute expenditure on digital advertising targeted at voters by a Canada-based company called AggregateIQ (AIQ), which is essentially the back office of Cambridge Analytica.

The scale of this operation is staggering: in the final days of the campaign, AIQ aimed 1½ billion ads at 7 million voters identified through their Facebook usage as open to persuasion. Vote Leave itself later said these ads were decisive.

One condition

But, and here’s the rub, it wasn’t just Vote Leave that paid AIQ’s bills for the campaign. So did BeLeave, an outfit called Veterans for Britain (VFB) – and the DUP. The DUP paid AIQ £32,750, or about €37,500. This in itself would be quite legal, provided one condition was met.

The DUP’s account with AIQ had to be entirely separate from Vote Leave’s account. If this money was going into the same pot, as part of the same plan to influence voters, it was part of an illegal scheme to breach expenditure limits.

If the DUP believes in anything, it is surely in British democracy and the rule of British law

A detailed opinion by legal partnership Matrix Chambers published last week by the House of Commons digital, culture, sport and media select committee says that four separate criminal offences would have been committed by the Vote Leave campaign and some of its officers if they co-ordinated this AIQ spending with other groups, and “we consider that there would be realistic prospects of conviction of those offences”.

So here's the key question: was the DUP's account with AIQ entirely separate from those of the other pro-Brexit campaigns? According to Andrew Wylie, the key insider who has blown the whistle on Cambridge Analytica, it was not. Wylie told the Commons committee that in April 2017, he visited the AIQ office in Canada. He met with his friend and AIQ co-founder Jeff Silvester.

Wylie said that Silvester told him that the “BeLeave campaign, as well as other campaigns on which AIQ had worked, for VFB and the Democratic Unionist Party, were ‘totally illegal’, but that AIQ were ‘based in another country where UK laws don’t apply’.”

Separate programmes

Crucially, Wylie says he asked Silvester (as the Matrix legal opinion puts it) “whether AIQ had ‘siloed’ its programmes for Vote Leave, BeLeave, VFB and DUP during the EU referendum campaign, by which he meant had AIQ maintained separate programmes for each campaign with technical barriers to prevent data sharing and separate staff working independently of each other.

“In response, Mr Silvester laughed and said, ‘of course not’ and continued that AIQ had briefed Vote Leave staff about the strategy and results of each of these programmes and the other associated campaigns.”

It is possible, of course, that the DUP did not understand what was going on, that it thought the money it was paying AIQ was for a digital ad campaign completely independent of that being run by Vote Leave. It is possible, in this regard, that the party’s naivety was taken advantage of by others.

But if this is the case, it should surely be shocked, appalled and outraged by what is emerging – and loudly demanding to know everything that happened. It should be in the forefront of demands for legal accountability. Yet it remains oddly silent.

The Brexit referendum is one of the most important moments in contemporary British and Irish history. If the DUP believes in anything, it is surely in British democracy and the rule of British law. There are very strong grounds for believing that the party was sucked into a scheme to undermine both of these things. That’s not very British, is it?