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Revealed: Group that funded DUP's £425,000 Brexit ad campaign

By Adrian Rutherford

The DUP received more than £400,000 from a little-known group of business people to bankroll its pro-Brexit campaign.

The Constitutional Research Council (CRC) can today be revealed as the mystery donor that funded the party's drive for the UK to leave the European Union. It is chaired by Richard Cook, a former vice-chairman of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.

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The group donated £425,622 to the DUP, which funded a series of pro-Leave adverts, including a high-profile wraparound ad in the Metro newspaper.

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the CRC was "a group which supports constitutional pro-Union causes". He added: "They believed, as did we, that Brexit would be good for the Union and bad for those who oppose it."

Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, Mr Donaldson said the DUP's campaign for Brexit had been "a great success".

He added: "I thank the CRC for choosing to donate to us, and, modesty to one side, I hope for our part we ran a campaign worthy of the cause.

"Thanks to their generous donation, we spent £425,622 throughout the UK, including in Northern Ireland, on a variety of pro-Leave advertising media.

"From social media, to things as old-fashioned as posters and T-shirts, to, I think, most eye-catchingly of all, a wraparound advert in Metro, the freesheet newspaper.

"Personally I think this was a great success and the positive feedback that we received from across the UK reinforces our view that it was right for a Northern Ireland party to put its shoulder to the wheel of the national campaign."

In a statement, Mr Cook 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."

Very little is known about CRC, the size and make-up of its membership, or its previous links to the DUP or Northern Ireland politics. Searches online produce nothing of substance. Mr Cook is a prominent figure in Scottish Conservative circles, having stood as a parliamentary candidate in several elections.

In the 2010 general election he contested the Westminster seat of East Renfrewshire.

He polled 15,567 votes, finishing second to Jim Murphy, who went on to serve as the Scottish Labour leader between December 2014 and June 2015.

Mr Cook was formerly chief executive of Cook Consulting (UK) Ltd. According to Companies House records, Cook Consulting (UK) Ltd was dissolved in June 2015.

In 2012 the firm made national headlines after signing agreements to deliver environmental projects in Karachi worth nearly $1bn (£640m).

This is not the first time the CRC has made political donations. According to the latest parliamentary Register of Members' Financial Interests, it made a £6,500 donation to Steve Baker, the Conservative MP for Wycombe.

In the register, Mr Baker writes: "As chair of the European Research Group (ERG), I accepted £6,500 from the Constitutional Research Council to fund hospitality for ERG members and their staff at an event on December 19, 2016."

Today's revelation goes some way to answering questions over who bankrolled the DUP's pro-Brexit campaign.

The party had paid for an expensive four-page Vote To Leave EU advertisement in the Metro newspaper. The freesheet is available in London and other cities, but not in Northern Ireland.

However, questions had been mounting over how the DUP had raised so much cash, having channelled six-figure sums into the 2015 and 2016 elections.

Donations to political parties in Northern Ireland are kept confidential for security reasons.

Last week DUP leader Arlene Foster said that she did not recall how much money was involved. She declined to reveal the identity of the donors, but said the money was properly accounted for "under the rules as they currently stand".

Last night Mr Donaldson said the DUP had not sought to hide its participation or enthusiasm for Brexit. "On every single piece of media we produced for our Leave campaign, my name was on them as national campaign director," he added.

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