THE ELECTORAL Commission has come under renewed pressure to explain its lack of action over the dark money scandal.

Emails obtained through Freedom of Information by the OpenDemocracy website showed that senior figures in the watchdog expressed concerns over the £435,000 donated by the shadowy, East Renfrewshire based Constitutional Research Council (CRC) to the DUP during the 2016 EU referendum, and yet took the decision not to launch an investigation.

In late June, BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight team broadcast a film, called Brexit, Dark Money and the DUP.

Staff at the regulator said that the film raised “concerns” about the source of the donation, and provided “new information” which suggested the DUP had been working together with other Leave campaigns in contravention of electoral law.

A month later, the Electoral Commission announced that it did “not have grounds” to launch a full investigation into the DUP’s Brexit spending.

Barrister Jolyon Maugham of the Good Law Project said that the Electoral Commission’s decision not to investigate the DUP was “utterly inexplicable from a genuinely independent regulator”.

The National:

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw

Maugham and Labour MP Ben Bradshaw have said they could seek a judicial review over the decision.

Until a change in the law last year, political donations in Northern Ireland could be made in secret, though, like the rest of the UK, parties had an obligation to perform due diligence.

The only name associated with the Constitutional Research Council is Richard Cook, a former treasurer of the Scottish Tories. He has never revealed who funds his organisation.

The DUP used the majority of the money given to them by the CRC to pay for an wrap-around advert the Metro newspaper.

It’s unusual for a Northern Irish party to advertise in the Metro as it’s only available in Scotland, England and Wales.

The day after the film aired, the Electoral Commission’s head of regulation Louise Edwards wrote to colleagues that remarks made by DUP MP Gregory Campbell in the broadcast were “sufficient for us to have concerns” about whether permissibility checks had been carried out on the source of the donation – the biggest in Northern Irish political history.

The DUP spent money with many of the same companies as Vote Leave, including tens of thousands with controversial firm Aggregate IQ.

Maugham said: “This was the biggest known political donation in Northern Irish history. The DUP’s own treasurer was caught on tape saying he didn’t know who the donor was and didn’t think it was his job to check. This is the clearest contravention imaginable of electoral law. Yet the Electoral Commission didn’t even bother to investigate. This is utterly inexplicable from a genuinely independent regulator.”

The National:

Martin Docherty-Hughes

SNP MP Martin Docherty-Hughes said: “It will come to many as a shock that given the evidence so far that the regulator has made this inexplicable decision on the DUP donation, and if it has now come to the point that a leading Queens Counsel should seek a judicial review on this decision, then our notion of access to free and fair elections are to my mind ill-served by the present regulations.”

An Electoral Commission spokesperson said: “In line with our Enforcement Policy, the Commission carried out an assessment into claims made by BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight that the DUP and Vote Leave failed to declare joint working at the EU referendum.

“We concluded that we did not have grounds to open an investigation into the allegations that were made due to insufficient evidence. The decision was made after a thorough review of the programme, information that was provided to us and other sources.”

The only other group to receive money from the CRC is the pro-Brexit European Research Group.