Early this week, Open Democracy ran an article on the so-called “dark money that paid for Brexit“. The supposedly-sinister funds referred to were those that the Democratic Unionist Party contributed to Vote Leave.
Now, the reason they call it “dark money” is because political donations are still secret in Northern Ireland. There are certainly grounds for objecting to that, although one can also reasonably disagree.
But rather than confining themselves to that, the authors at Open Democracy go to some length to try to persuade us that the DUP’s actual campaigning activity was also deeply suspicious, if not worse. They base this claim on two notions: that the party spent a lot more money on the referendum than it usually does, and that it spent a lot of it outside Northern Ireland.
It takes only a few moments’ consideration to realise that there are non-sinister explanations for both. Let’s look at them in turn. First:
“Just how much the DUP spent on Brexit remains to be seen. But the Electoral Commission have already let slip something surprising: it’s more than £250,000. And the most obvious reason that a relatively small party had so much to spend on this campaign? Because political donations in Northern Ireland are kept secret.”
Is that really the most obvious reason? It strikes me as rather more obvious that the DUP had, like other official participants in the campaign, a legal spending allowance to which Brexiteer donors might quite reasonably direct funds when other allowances were full.
Maybe Arlene Foster really did cash an anonymous cheque from a Kremlin-linked bank or suchlike, but that’s far from the “most obvious” explanation for her party’s spending. The authors try to insinuate that the DUP wouldn’t have been a useful outlet for Brexiteer cash without Ulster’s secrecy rules, but they don’t really even begin to demonstrate why this would be so.
So when the authors ask “So, why did the DUP spend so much campaigning to leave the European Union? And where did they get all the money to do so?”, the most obvious answers are “because they wanted to leave the European Union” and “Brexiteer donors”.
Despite this, it’s understandable that a small party spending much larger amounts of money than usual might look suspicious at first glance. The same can’t be said for the second objection: that the DUP spent money on the mainland.
Open Democracy point out that the party spent in several areas, including signs in Scotland, but focus on a major advert on the front of the Metro, which doesn’t circulate in Northern Ireland. There then follows this contribution from Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party and MP for Belfast East from 2010 to 2015:
“It is hard to understand why the DUP would spend that amount of money on an advert in London or anywhere else in GB. Where are the benefits to the DUP in doing that?”
Long isn’t an idiot, so she must know that the question she’s posing is ridiculous. This wasn’t an election with DUP candidates standing in their own little patch: the “benefits to the DUP” of Brexit spending were Leave winning the UK-wide vote. It would be more surprising if the DUP were not directing their funds as part of a country-wide vote-optimisation effort.
Moreover, in the following two statements the authors at Open Democracy actually provide us with more reasons for the party’s high mainland spending:
“A UK-wide wrap around advert in the Metro costs £250,000: on its own, far more than any Northern Irish Party has ever spent on even the most significant election campaigns.”
“A quarter of a million pounds is unlike anything the DUP has spent in the past. Just a month before the EU referendum, the party won 38 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections and retained its position as the largest party there. To do this, they spent less than £90,000.”
Even if the DUP weren’t doing the obvious, sensible thing and channelling their funds to wherever in the UK they would maximise the Brexit vote, the above passages clearly indicate that Northern Irish politics can absorb only a comparatively small amount of campaign spending. In a truly national contest there’s no reason the overflow wouldn’t or shouldn’t get spent in other theatres.
Personally, as a unionist, I welcome Northern Irish unionists adopting a more pan-UK perspective. That the referendum afforded us the opportunity to have a genuinely national political debate, transcending the divisions of devolution, was one of its great upsides.
Again, you can think what you will on Northern Irish donor privacy laws. But it’s a shade ironic for the champions of clarity to make claims like this:
“Until the funders behind the DUP campaign are fully disclosed, we should assume there is a good reason that someone doesn’t want us to know who they are.”
…without even mentioning the alternative, less sinister explanations for the facts they’re analysing – and disappointing when a paper like the Times (£) fails to add such context when it picks up the story.