Belfast Telegraph

Alliance's pro-Europe backers to stay secret for months

By Sean O'Driscoll

The public will not know who is funding a pro-European group that is backing the Alliance Party in East Belfast until six months after the election, the Northern Ireland Electoral Commission has said.

The Open Britain campaign inherited the assets, staff and management of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, which received millions of pounds in big business donations during the Brexit referendum.

Open Britain is now urging people in Northern Ireland to volunteer for Alliance leader Naomi Long so that she can take the seat from the DUP's Gavin Robinson, who supports Brexit.

Its website says East Belfast voted 51.3% leave and shows the voting patterns in the constituency in the last general election.

The campaign will also launch a new online platform to provide more specific details on how the campaign is going in East Belfast and the other 19 marginal seats it has identified across the UK.

Figures from the UK Electoral Commission show Stronger in Europe received £500,000 each from JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs and £250,000 each from Citigroup and Morgan Stanley ahead of last June's Brexit referendum. Lord Sainsbury, a Labour peer, gave £4.2m.

James McGrory, the co-executive director of Open Britain, said that none of that money would be spent to elect Mrs Long or any of the 20 pro-European candidates it has targeted to win House of Commons seats. "All that money was spent during the referendum so we have to start with a new funding campaign," he said.

"No candidate will be funded, it's about providing online support to identify key seats and encourage people to volunteer for pro-Europe candidates."

Mr McGrory said the funds for Open Britain include "very large donors and very small donors" but declined to identify them.

The policy of openly backing pro-EU candidates has proved highly controversial.

A group of pro-EU Conservative MPs last week cut their ties with Open Britain because it was largely targeting pro-Brexit Conservative seats.

It is believed that Lord Sainsbury, former chairman of the Sainsbury supermarket chain, remains a donor to the Open Britain campaign, which is supporting pro-EU candidates in the hope of avoiding a hard Brexit and, possibly, a cancelling of Britain's exit from the EU.

Open Britain registered as non-party campaigners with the Electoral Commission for the 2017 General Election.

A spokesman for the Northern Ireland section of the Electoral Commission said the funding of non-party campaigners who spend over £250,000 anywhere in the UK during the election campaign will be published about six months after it.

An Open Britain source said that the spending across the UK will be above £250,000.

Ms Long previously stunned the Northern Ireland political establishment by taking the seat from Peter Robinson, the then DUP leader, in 2010. Mr Robinson had held the seat for more than 30 years.

Gavin Robinson, a strong Brexit supporter, took the seat back for the DUP in 2015.

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