The Democratic Unionist party spent £282,000 on a pro-Brexit advert in a newspaper that is not published in Northern Ireland, according to documents released by the Electoral Commission.
The advertising cover wrap appeared in the Metro elsewhere in the UK as part of a total DUP spend on the EU referendum campaign of £425,000, more than seven times the party’s declared expenditure of £58,183 on the 2015 general election.
Under a provision in funding rules dating to the Troubles, which allows Northern Irish political parties to accept anonymous contributions, the identity of the donors to the DUP campaign had not been made public.
But after growing pressure to name the source of the money, the DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson revealed on Friday that the little-known pro-union Constitutional Research Council (CRC) had donated.It came hours before the commission published the expenditure of organisations and individuals that had spent more than £250,000 during the campaign. Meanwhile, the body announced that it has opened investigations into the spending of both official campaigns in the referendum and is looking into the returns of more than half a dozen other organisations.
The size of the DUP spend has led to renewed concerns about the provision. Critics have also questioned how the party raised such a large campaign fund. One warned that Northern Ireland was being used by major political donors as an “offshore secrecy haven”.
Donaldson described the CRC, chaired by the former vice-chairman of the Scottish Conservative party Richard Cook, as a “group of businessmen that promotes pro-union politics”.
“I believe it is a reputable organisation and we are very pleased to have received that donation for our national campaign,” he told the Guardian.
Cook was twice a Tory general election candidate in East Renfrewshire to the south of Glasgow, once a Tory bulwark, where he stood against Labour’s Jim Murphy and lost on both occasions.
Seen as being on the right of the party, his initiative to fund an anti-EU campaign is understood to be a surprise to the party leadership. A Scottish Conservative source said: “It certainly has nothing to do with us and we have absolutely no knowledge of it at all.”
The DUP has not publicly identified any of the individuals or companies who donated to the CRC and is not obliged to do so under current rules. A party spokesperson said: “Our donor is the CRC and we have performed all the checks laid out by the Electoral Commission.”
In keeping with the rest of the UK, Northern Irish parties have to report donations of more than £7,500 to the commission. But while political parties in Northern Ireland are required to report their donations, the commission cannot publish this information other than for the purposes of civil or criminal proceedings. The exemption was designed to protect donors from possible threats or intimidation.A spokesman for the Electoral Commission said the body was unable to say if the CRC donation complied with the law, or if its staff had yet had an opportunity to check upon the donation, because of the privacy rules governing Northern Irish political parties.
Friends of the Earth in Northern Ireland started a campaign for party donor transparency five years ago.
In response to the revelations, it said: “We thought dark money was trickling through our political system, but now we know it is flowing like a torrent.”
James Orr, the environmental group’s director in Northern Ireland, said: “There are implications for the entire UK when even a small devolved country tolerates secret donations to political parties. This funding could be the tip of the iceberg.
“We have been warning everyone in the UK that the unjustifiable special status of Northern Ireland would eventually lead to a situation where major political spending could use Northern Ireland as an offshore secrecy haven.”
Investigations have begun into the official lead campaigns on both sides, Britain Stronger in Europe and Vote Leave, which each registered total expenditures of more than £6.7m, the commission said. The elections watchdog added that £27m was spent overall, £16m by remain groups and £11m by leave organisations and individuals.
The campaigns had seemingly not provided all the invoices and receipts required to support their returns, with some other details also missing, the commission said.
The Liberal Democrats, who registered a spend of £2.2m for remain, are also being investigated over similar issues.
The commission, which has legal powers under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, said it was not yet known whether any offences had been committed.
It is also looking into the spending of six other campaigns, including Labour and Ukip, which submitted returns with discrepancies over how they reported some expenditures, the commission said.
The In Campaign Ltd (Britain Stronger in Europe) - £6,767,584
Labour party – £4,845,733
Liberal Democrats – £2,225,058
Conservatives In Ltd – £658,431
Virgin Management Ltd – £488,101
Unison - £461,084
Best For Our Future Ltd - £409,438
European Movement of the UK Ltd - £297,470
Vote Leave Ltd – £6,789,892
Ukip – £1,354,393
Leave.EU Group Ltd – £693,022
Brexit Express – £630,236
Labour Leave Ltd – £494,897
DUP – £425,622
Peter Harris – £421,433
Democracy Movement – £421,308
WAGTV Ltd – £303,623