On 20 June, the eve of the Queen’s speech, the Electoral Commission fined Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for errors in its election spending returns. This means that the Conservative Party and the party it’s trying to do a deal with have now both been embroiled in recent election expenses scandals. But that’s not the half of it. Because any media scrutiny of the DUP’s election spending could be very bad news indeed for Theresa May.
Election spending errors
The Electoral Commission has fined the DUP £4,000 for errors in its spending returns for the 2016 Assembly election. Spending was “mistakenly declared twice” – once on the DUP’s spending returns, and once on a DUP candidate’s.
A DUP spokesperson said:
This error was corrected in an amended campaign expenditure return. We regret that these administrative errors led to our election spend being recorded as higher than should have been the case. The party has put in place new processes to guard against this in future. The fine has been paid in full. The Commission has confirmed this matter is now closed.
Far from rare
The case may be closed, but it throws a spotlight on Northern Ireland’s election spending at an awkward time for the Prime Minister, who finds herself reliant on DUP support.
Investigative news site The Detail suggests inaccurate returns are far from rare in Northern Ireland:
A quarter of politicians elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly last year submitted inaccurate financial information about their campaigns – leaving over £90,000 unaccounted for.
The candidates in question come from all parties, says The Detail, but “the DUP had the largest sum of money unaccounted for”. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by any of the candidates.
But it gets worse. The DUP is embroiled in another, still-unfolding campaign finance scandal. As an openDemocracy investigation has meticulously documented, “dark money” has been filtering into the UK’s political system via the DUP. The scandal, which has so far avoided much scrutiny by corporate media on the UK mainland, raises serious questions about the UK’s democracy.
Most parties in the UK have to declare where party donations come from. But parties in Northern Ireland do not, because of perceived security risks. While some small parties in Northern Ireland voluntarily name their donors, the DUP, Sinn Féin, SDLP and UUP refuse to.
So during the EU referendum, the pro-Brexit DUP was able to spend vast sums of money on pro-Leave advertising without revealing its donors’ identities. The DUP paid for a £282,000 advert in The Metro, which isn’t distributed in Northern Ireland. But the public had no right to know who was funding Leave propaganda on the British mainland via the DUP.
As openDemocracy put it:
Anyone who wanted to donate to the Leave campaign without facing the public accountability required by laws in Great Britain could simply funnel money through the DUP.
The source of the cash remained secret until, under pressure, the DUP was finally forced to admit that an organisation called the Constitutional Research Council (CRC) had given it a £425,000 donation. Little is known about the CRC. But its chair, Richard Cook, is a former vice chairman of the Scottish Conservative Party and Tory election candidate. He has worked with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. He has close links to the former Director General of the Saudi Arabian intelligence service. And he is a former Scottish representative of Conservative Friends of Israel.
Niall Bakewell of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, which campaigns for donor transparency, has said:
Whoever really gave the DUP that money, they wanted to hide under as many layers of secrecy as possible
And Steven Agnew, leader of the Green Party of Northern Ireland, said:
There is a lingering sense of subterfuge around the DUP Brexit donation… People deserve to know what strings are being pulled behind the scenes and by whom.
Richard Cook has 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.
A DUP spokesperson said:
Our donor is the CRC and we have performed all the checks laid out by the Electoral Commission.
We still don’t know in whose interests the DUP acted during the EU referendum campaign. Now the DUP is likely to have the casting vote in UK legislation – but we won’t know who funds the party. So if the wider media turns its attention to this latest election expenses scandal and its implications for democracy in the UK, it could be game over for Theresa May.
– Sign the petition demanding Northern Ireland gets the dark money out of government.
– Make your thoughts on the deal known. Contact your MP and be vocal on social media.
– Sign the petition opposing a Conservative deal with the DUP.
Featured image via Wikimedia