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    Anti Brexit billboards are seen on the northern side of the border between Newry, in Northern Ireland, and Dundalk, in the Republic of Ireland, on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. British Prime Minister Theresa May is scheduled to make her first visit to the Irish border since the Brexit referendum later this week

    'Dark Money' Saga Rages On: DUP Brexit Ads Targeted England, Scotland & Wales

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    Facebook adverts funded by the Democratic Unionist Party during the Brexit referendum campaign were targeted overwhelmingly at voters in England, Scotland and Wales, rather than the DUP's Northern Irish homeland, openDemocracy has revealed.

    The exposure flows from data released by the UK parliament Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee's inquiry into 'fake news'.

    The DUP ads were arranged by "digital advertising, web and software development" company AggregateIQ, a Canadian firm with oblique connections to Cambridge Analytica. Adverts such as seen up to 4.7 million times by Facebook users in England, Scotland and Wales, but a mere 860,000 times in Northern Ireland.

    Typical slogans included "better for jobs", "better for family budgets", and "better for security". However, an advert claiming leaving the European Union would be "better for our borders" did not appear in Northern Ireland at all, perhaps wisely given the ongoing controversy about the potential 'hard border' Brexit may necessitate between Belfast and the Republic of Ireland.

    Democratic Unionist Party Pro-Leave Advert on Facebook © DUP
    Democratic Unionist Party Pro-Leave Advert on Facebook © DUP
    The campaign was funded by a US$570,000 (£435,000) donation to the DUP's coffers from the Constitutional Research Council, a shadowy group chaired by Richard Cook, former vice chair of the Scottish Conservatives. Cook is a controversial character indeed — on July 4, during Prime Minister's Questions, leading Scottish National Party MP Ian Blackford described Cook as having "a trail of involvement in illegal activities and foreign money".

    Multi-Front Campaign

    The DUP did not merely exploit social media in mainland Britain — posters, garments, traditional display advertising (including a wraparound advert in a London freesheet newspaper) and more all spread across England, Scotland and Wales before and during the Brexit campaign.

    Nonetheless, despite the propaganda blitz, the source of the party's apparently sizeable promotional war chest may have remained secret in perpetuity due to Northern Ireland's stringent donor secrecy laws. However, pressure from activists eventually forced the DUP to reveal the Constitutional Research Council's largesse was behind the project.

    Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) visit Belleek Pottery, in St Belleek, Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, July 19, 2018.
    © REUTERS / Clodagh Kilcoyne
    Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) visit Belleek Pottery, in St Belleek, Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, July 19, 2018.
    The Council is a ghostly entity, with no website or internet presence to speak of, or official registration as a company or charity — ostensible chair Cook is the only individual publicly connected with the group. The organization's opacity is even more surprising given Cook ran for parliament in 2010 on a pledge to "publish online details of all donations of more than £1,000, in line with Electoral Commission rules".

    In a statement, Cook said the group "[supported] constitutional pro-Union causes" and was "delighted" to have supported the DUP's Leave campaign. Separately, DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson explained the money had been given as the group believed "as did we" — Brexit would be "good for the Union and bad for those who oppose it".

    Cook is a well-connected figure in Conservative circles — on top of once running for parliament on the Tory ticker, he is the former Scottish director of the Campaign Against Political Correctness, a former representative of Conservative Friends of Israel and former vice chairman of the Scottish Conservatives. He also made headlines in Scotland in February 2017 after pledging to invest significant resources into a new campaign opposing Scottish independence post-Brexit.

    Saudi Arabian royal Al-Waleed Bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud looks on during a meeting with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake in Colombo on July 4, 2017
    © AFP 2019 / ISHARA S. KODIKARA
    Saudi Arabian royal Al-Waleed Bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud looks on during a meeting with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake in Colombo on July 4, 2017
    However, he also has ties with Saudi Arabia's ruling elite. In 2013, he founded a company, Five Star Investment Management, with Prince Nawwaf bin Abdul Aziz, senior prince in the Riyadh court, and former head of the country's intelligence agency. His son Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf Al Saud has been Saudi ambassador to the UK since 2005.

    Five Star Investment Management was registered at Cook's Glasgow address, filed no accounts with Companies House, and was dissolved in December 2014.

    The clear connection raises further questions about the source of CRC's own funding, and whether certain figures helped fund pro-Leave campaigning activities. Saudi Arabia was widely tipped to be a major beneficiary from 'Brexit' prior to the vote, and since June 2016 has purchased assets in the UK, as well as major military hardware, at a significant discount due to the falling value of sterling.

    As of July 30 2018, the DUP has not responded to Sputnik's requests for comment.

    'Dark Money'

    The ultimate source of the DUP's advertising budget is not 'dark money' scandal currently enveloping Britain's political establishment. Between April 2001 and February 2018, the Scottish Unionist Association Trust donated around $418,000 (£319,000) to the Scottish Conservatives — highly secretive, the organization has no fixed address, and is currently under investigation by the UK Electoral Commission.

    Canvassing materials showing the face of Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, are pictured as she campaigns for the UK general election in the centre of Edinburgh on April 23, 2015
    © AFP 2019 / Andy Buchanan
    Canvassing materials showing the face of Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, are pictured as she campaigns for the UK general election in the centre of Edinburgh on April 23, 2015
    Electoral Commission records show the Trust was apparently created April 1968, but it has never been registered with Companies House, the Financial Conduct Authority, or the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.

    Over the course of its existence, it has been connected to at least three different addresses in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Melrose in official records. Moreover, while it has no current trustees, prior trustees have included Peter Duncan, former Scottish Conservatives chairman and Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, and former Scottish Conservatives executive Robert Miller-Bakewell.

    The organization's prior Electoral Commission entries repeatedly lists the Trust as an unincorporated association. However, Commission rules state unincorporated associations donating over US$328,000 (£25,000) in a calendar year must register with the body, which the Trust has failed to do.

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    dark money, political donors, campaign donations, foreign donations, Brexit, UK Electoral Commission, Scottish Conservative Party, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Conservative Party, United Kingdom, Scotland
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