New legislation is supposed to improve transparency, but it will actually do the opposite
James Brokenshire is covering up for the DUP. What looks like a move towards transparency in fact threatens to ensure that the party will never have to reveal one of its biggest secrets: one which we all have a right to know.
But let’s rewind a little. For me, this began outside Waverley station. I’d just come back from Doncaster, interviewing people before the European referendum, and there, with the famous Edinburgh skyline behind them, were two Leave campaigners.
I started off interviewing them, we ended up arguing. And then I noticed it: the imprint on the placards they were holding said “J Donaldson, Democratic Unionist Party, Dundella Avenue, Belfast”.
“Do you even know who the DUP are?” I harrumphed at them, before storming off. But on my walk home, I realised something. There is only one reason why campaigners in Edinburgh would be using materials funded by a Northern Irish party: there is no donor transparency in Northern Ireland. While all major donations to parties in Great Britain are published, donations to Northern Irish parties are secret. Someone, somewhere, wanted to funnel dark money into the Leave campaign.
Who? We still don’t know.
In February, an election was called in Northern Ireland, and it was time to pounce. So I rang Peter Geoghegan, an Irish journalist, also based in Scotland, who had spotted the same thing during his pre-referendum adventures, and come to the same conclusion. I put a proposition to him: let’s work out where the cash came from.
First, we figured out that the DUP had spent at least £250,000 on the campaign – many times more than any previous election. We published our first article, and co-ordinated a campaign to push them to reveal where they got it from.
Eventually, under the pressure of the election, with some excellent Northern Irish journalists refusing to let them change the subject, they admitted that they’d got the cash via an obscure group called the Constitutional Research Council (CRC), whose chair is the Scottish Tory Richard Cook. Oh, and that it was actually £435,000. But all they had really done was pull back a curtain to reveal another curtain: who are the CRC, and where did they get all this cash from?
So Peter and I dug into Richard Cook. And going through his entry on the Companies House website, I was a little surprised to find that his co-founders of the innocuous sounding “Five Star Investment Management ltd” included Prince Nawwaf Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud: the former head of the Saudi Intelligence Service, and father of the current Saudi ambassador to the UK. The other co-founder, Peter Haestrup, we later managed to figure out, has repeatedly been accused of being involved in organising the smuggling of hundreds of AK47s to a Hindu extremist group in West Bengal in 1995.
Where does the CRC – which is probably just a small informal group of people – get its cash from? We still have no idea, though in months of asking, we have found out lots more about the people around it.
But there was one way that were were likely to find out more, eventually. In 2014, the government passed a law, the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act. Among these various miscellaneous provisions was one relating to party donor transparency: from then on, Northern Irish parties would have to declare all donations to the Electoral Commission in the usual way – which includes all major donations to, as well as from, Unincorporated Associations like the Constitutional Research Council. But they wouldn’t be published until the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said so.
Because of this, the parties in Northern Ireland have all assumed that, one day, all the donations to them from 2014 onwards will be published.
What James Brokenshire announced in the wake of the confidence and supply agreement with the DUP is that, rather than simply enact this existing law and publish all major donations to political parties in Northern Ireland from 2014 onwards, he will go through all the bother of getting a new law passed in the House of Commons, which will only deliver transparency from July 2017 onwards. In other words, while shouting about transparency, he is enacting new legislation whose only real effect will be to hide donations between 2014 and 2017.
The only explanation Brokenshire has given for this is that, as the government said to Channel 4 News, “the Secretary of State does not believe it is right or fair to impose retrospective regulations on people who donated in accordance with rules set out in law at the time”.
It’s a big deal to accuse a government minister of lying. So let me say this: the law at the time was clear that these donations would one day be published. It is Brokenshire who is changing the rules, and colluding with the DUP to hide the true source of this vast donation.
We still don’t know where it came from, but we’ll be damned if we let Brokenshire stop us from finding out. You can donate to our investigation here.
Adam Ramsay is the Co-Editor of openDemocracyUK and also works with Bright Green. Before, he was a full time campaigner with People & Planet. Follow him on Twitter.
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