Northern Ireland news

Electoral Commission contacts BBC over DUP Brexit donation claims

The DUP spent £282,000 on a wraparound ad in London-based newspaper Metro
Brendan Hughes

THE Electoral Commission has asked the BBC to provide evidence of alleged electoral offences reported in a recent Spotlight programme examining the DUP's EU referendum campaign.

However, the watchdog said it has not launched a formal investigation into whether the DUP improperly worked with Brexit campaign group Vote Leave on the 2016 poll.

It emerges after the Electoral Commission yesterday confirmed Vote Leave has been fined £61,000 and senior figures referred to police for breaking electoral law.

Questions have persisted over apparent links between the DUP's Brexit campaign and Vote Leave, the official Leave campaign during the referendum on whether the UK should stay in the European Union.

'Coordination' between campaigns without jointly declaring expenditure is prohibited under electoral law – a measure designed to ensure legal spending limits are not side-stepped through front groups.

The Commission found Vote Leave exceeded its £7m spending limit by funnelling £675,315 through youth group BeLeave.

Vote Leave spent nearly £2.7m on AggregateIQ, a Canadian data analytics firm which developed targeted Facebook advertising.

The Commission found that BeLeave spent the £675,315 on AggregateIQ under "a common plan with Vote Leave", which was not declared by Vote Leave and took its spending over the limit by almost £500,000.

Other Brexit-backing groups also used AggregateIQ during the referendum campaign. They included the DUP, which spent almost £33,000 on the firm.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds was a director of Vote Leave.

Vote Leave canvassers were spotted using DUP Brexit placards, while both campaigns used the same printing company. The DUP also received £723 from Vote Leave for advertising.

DUP councillor Lee Reynolds, the party's group leader on Belfast City Council, also oversaw Vote Leave's campaign in Northern Ireland.

However, BBC Spotlight last month revealed that AggregateIQ said its contact within the DUP for its campaign was Mr Reynolds.

The programme also investigated the man heading an unknown pro-union group which bankrolled the DUP's £425,000 Brexit campaign.

The DUP received the donation from the Constitutional Research Council (CRC), which has been described as a group of pro-union business figures.

More than half was spent on a front-page wraparound advertisement in London-based newspaper Metro – a publication not circulated in Northern Ireland.

CRC's only known member is its chair Richard Cook, a former vice chairman of the Scottish Conservative Party.

The DUP has said the party authorised and directed all spending, and complied with electoral law at all times.

Asked about its investigation published yesterday and whether DUP and Vote Leave links would be examined, an Electoral Commission spokesman said: "The DUP were not part of our investigation into Vote Leave and as such we have not investigated whether the DUP were working together with Vote Leave.

"Where evidence emerges that the rules may have been broken we will consider this in line with our enforcement policy."

However, he added: "Following the recent Spotlight programme we have asked the BBC to provide us with copies of any evidence it holds of the electoral offences it mentioned in the programme.

"We will then consider such evidence in line with our enforcement policy."

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