DUP insist they were right to ask for delay on Brexit referendum spending 'as others misrepresented facts'
Party asked for publication to be delayed until after election
The DUP has said it was right to ask the Electoral Commission to delay publication of its spending on the EU referendum campaign because - as the party feared - its rivals "misrepresented facts" during the Assembly election campaign.
The party tried to block publication of its expenditure, it was revealed by investigative website The Detail.
The DUP campaigned to leave and took out an expensive wrap-around advertisement with London's Metro free sheet newspaper. It spent over £400,000.
It asked the Electoral Commission to delay publication until a week after the March 2 snap Assembly election. It has said the party never sought to prevent the figures being released and actually itself went further when it revealed who its donor was.
"This voluntary step was beyond the details published by the Electoral Commission and is one that has not been repeated by any of the other major political parties in Northern Ireland," the party said.
"Given attempts by some other political parties to misrepresent the facts following publication it was right to highlight to the Commission that it could distract from key issues in the Assembly election campaign.
While the DUP has provided a greater level of transparency... donations to other parties are ignored. DUP
"The DUP has gone further than any other major party in voluntarily disclosing donor information."
In February the Belfast Telegraph revealed that the Constitutional Research Council (CRC) provided the party with over £400,000. 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. It is chaired by Richard Cook, a former vice-chairman of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Mr Cook is a prominent figure in Scottish Conservative circles, having stood as a parliamentary candidate in several elections.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson described their campaign as a success.
On Thursday, The Detail reports on email's obtained through Freedom of information that show the DUP tried to delay the publication of the information until a week after the March 2 Assembly election. The information was subsequently published a week before polling day.
The DUP email stated: “We’ve noticed in the press various stories to the effect of, ‘the EU Spending returns are soon to be published by the Electoral Commission’. Our friends in the media frequently get things wrong, not least when it comes to their coverage of hard-pressed regulators. But we’d obviously like clarity on this point please.
“Therefore we’d be grateful if you could please confirm that the Electoral Commission, in accordance with both best practice and past precedent, will obviously not be publishing the returns during the Northern Ireland Assembly election campaign?”
The commission which said it considered the timing of the publication in light of the Assembly poll, responded saying the timing of the poll was not a "practical impediment to publication" and that it was acting in the interest of transparency".
Four days before the release of the information the DUP's Sir Jeffrey Donaldson again emailed to ask that publication be delayed for a week to “avoid interfering with the Northern Ireland Assembly elections”.
This was again rejected.
The DUP did not comment to The Detail.
There was no precedent to publish such politically contentious material during an election campaign. DUP
In a statement to the Belfast Telegraph, it said: "The Democratic Unionist Party voluntarily published details of the donor who helped fund the DUP’s participation in the European Referendum campaign. This voluntary step was beyond the details published by the Electoral Commission and is one that has not been repeated by any of the other major political parties in Northern Ireland.
"In our correspondence with the Electoral Commission we did not query the principle of publishing spending returns for the Referendum campaign, but discussed the timing of when this might happen. Given attempts by some other political parties to misrepresent the facts following publication it was right to highlight to the Commission that it could distract from key issues in the Assembly election campaign."
The statement continued: "There is no precedent the Electoral Commission can point to when it before published such politically contentious material during an election campaign.
No one needs reminding why we had security provisions in place for donors in Northern Ireland. DUP
"The EU Referendum, spending returns were published published by the Electoral Commission on Friday February 24. It should be noted that the Commission itself confidently briefed to journalists that its own worst-case internal scenario was that spending returns would be collated by last Christmas at the very latest. By publishing two months later even than anticipated, this meant that publication inevitably impacted upon on the Assembly Election campaign.
"There has been a deliberate attempt to confuse the correspondence with the Commission, which touched on the timing of its publication of the spending returns, and, the statements by Edwin Poots and others about the party's efforts to secure the voluntary disclosure of the details of the donor.
"At no point would the Electoral Commission have been publishing these. To repeat, all that the Electoral Commission published were the returns; we took the decision to additionally publish the donor's details, with their consent. No one needs reminding why we have had security provisions in place for donors in Northern Ireland.
"While the DUP has provided a greater level of transparency than any other major political party, there is once again an attack on the DUP, while donations to other parties are continually ignored. We await any questioning of others about their donors. Why is this not being pursued when the DUP has gone further than any other major party in voluntarily disclosing donor information?”
In revealing the group behind the donation, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the DUP shown its commitment to transparency and 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.
Donations to political parties in Northern Ireland are kept confidential for security reasons.
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