The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is clouded in mystery. A line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet might be fitting to describe the current situation: “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark.” This is not to say that anything or anyone is corrupted, but rather to draw attention to something not quite right when it comes to the DUP’s mysterious activities. 

The Irish Times points out that two days before the Brexit referendum, the Metro in London and other British cities, featured a four-page article calling readers to vote Leave. Paid by the DUP and circulated in England, the Northern Irish party didn’t reveal where the money came from and how much it cost. Eventually the DUP admitted that the £282,000 for the Metro advert and other campaign spending were part of a larger donation (£425,622) from the Constitutional Research Council. Because of the fact that large donations don’t have to be declared in Northern Ireland, all of this begs the question: why would anyone hide their identity or donation.

What is permissible when it comes to donations to political parties?

While there are no limits on the amount of donations received by political parties, there are laws that dictate who can be a donor and how much can be spent by political parties on campaigns. The need for transparency means that all finances are public and parties can accept donations from those donors who are considered “permissible”: “an individual registered on a UK electoral register; a UK registered political party; a UK registered company; a UK registered trade union; a UK registered building society; a UK registered limited liability partnership; a UK registered friendly/building society; or a UK based unincorporated association.” Those who are foreign and not registered British electors living abroad are not permissible donors. Donations over £5,000 to political party offices or over £1,000 to constituency or local party offices have to be reported to the Electoral Commission. In Northern Ireland, the election law says that before the party accepts any donation above £500, they need to check the donor and whether the donation is from a permissible source. While Northern Ireland’s donor secrecy laws mean that they don’t have to declare the donation, they also avoided naming the donor.

The Constitutional Research Council

Arlene Foster refused to name the donor of the £425,622 to the DUP, even though she had to know the true source for the money to be legal. But when this was identified as the Constitutional Research Council, headed by Scottish Conservative Richard Cook, who had no legal status to donate a sum of money that he himself was impossible to own, things got more intriguing. Cook appears to have had connections with a member of the Saudi royal family. Prince Nawwaf bun Abdul Aziz al Saud founded a company with Cook in 2013, just two years before he died. The Prince was a Saudi minister of finance and later head of the Saudi intelligence agency. The story gets more interesting since we have an 80-year-old Saudi Prince and powerful investor getting into business with a Scottish Conservative businessman whom no one had heard of before. As the Irish Times point out: “the DUP claims not to know either. And that is at best reckless and at worst illegal.”

When Cook was asked about the donations he tried to dismiss the rumours as conspiracy theories: “There have been rumours that the DUP got this money from Vladimir Putin, dark shadowy groups, then Saudi intelligence and even from beneficiaries of an arms drop in India. It is all fanciful nonsense.”

Ely, Cambridgeshire

The quiet and picturesque Ely, the second smallest city in England, with its Fen countryside and England’s most beautiful cathedral, is also home to a dark secret. What would otherwise appear as a normal and indifferent building in a suburban street of Ely, is actually the offices of Soopa Doopa, the branding agency that the Leave campaigns used to advertise Brexit.

According to Open Democracy, “the Electoral Commission Website tells us, Arron Banks’ Leave.EU, the official Vote Leave campaign, Grassroots Out, Ukip and the Democratic Unionist Party collectively spent over £800,000 with Soopa Doopa.” The DUP “spent almost £100,000 with Soopa Doopa, buying 15,000 Corex Boards, 5,000 bags, 100,000 window stickers, 7,000 t-shirts and 50,000 badges.” Leave.EU “spent £20,652.25 with Soopa Doopa, Grassroots Out £42,000, Ukip £18,000, and Vote Leave £637,108.80. In the whole of 2014-15, Soopa Doopa had a turnover of just three-quarters of a million pounds.”

Why is this suspicious? Because, as Open Democracy points out, it is weird how all of these various Leave campaigns happened to use the same obscure little agency in Ely. This is particularly interesting when the Vote Leave and the Leave.EU campaigns were usually accusing one another of “undermining the Brexit cause.” The question that remains is how the different Brexit campaigns spent their money “and where it all came from.”

Open Democracy actually visited the city to find out more. When they visited the address listed on the Soopa Doopa Branding Ltd, the house was empty. Calling the number on the site, they talked to Jake Scott-Paul who explained that they never printed any mugs or advertising material for the Leave campaigns but rather organised the printing. He confirmed to the reporters that he had worked with the Brexit campaigns and that “they were all one campaign.” On another occasion, Soopa Doopa told the journalists that “Everything you need to know is in the public domain. Those organisations came to us during the referendum and we supplied merchandise to them. That’s all I have to say really.”

Jake Scott Paul has been vocal about his support for Brexit and among his Twitter followers there are prominent members of the Leave campaign, including Aaron Banks and Andy Wigmore.

DUP’s Brexit money

The Guardian’s George Monbiot, also covered the story from Open Democracy on Wednesday, with the title Who paid for the leave vote? Brexit should be halted until we know. An article on Open Democracy from February 2017, indicates that the DUP funnelled into the Brexit campaign more money that it could ever make, perhaps from donations, but such donations made to a Northern Irish party could “be used to fund campaigning in Scotland, England and Wales.” While there are laws about accountability in Great Britain, in Northern Ireland, secrecy laws could enable a donor’s money to circulate secretly, in such a way that it is possible to assume “Whether this is just because such a donor is a bit of a wallflower, or because of something more sinister which Leave campaigners may wish to hide from the public eye, we don’t know.” 

Steven Agnew, leader of the Northern Irish Greens, said to Open Democracy: “It is certainly possible that funds were being channelled through a party in Northern Ireland to take advantage of the veil of secrecy that surrounds our party political donations. It would concern me greatly if it was found that ‘donor tourism’ was taking place.” 

Since the Conservatives struck their deal with the DUP, the Norther Ireland party has come under more scrutiny, especially when the DUP are anti-abortion, climate change deniers, have links to the extreme right, oppose same sex marriage, and support the death penalty. 

Was the Brexit campaign a poker game played by the big boys and at the expense of the rest of us? Who donated and with what money? How democratic was the vote? And what about the DUP. Do you think they are worth the £1bn of other people’s money they got?