September 17, 2010
Posted by John P
It has become the heart of the BNP operation and the focus of the growing backlash against the party leadership. Searchlight has exclusively pieced together life inside the Belfast bunker.
By Matthew Collins
The Carrowreagh business centre in Dundonald, on the outskirts of east Belfast, separates two quite different elements of Northern Ireland. To one side lie the scenic green hills of County Down, sprawling farmland and narrow country lanes edged by stone walls. It’s a stone’s throw away from the home of the former First Minister Peter Robinson. On the other side, is the Ballybeen Estate, Northern Ireland’s second largest housing estate, where the local paramilitaries mark their territory with colourful reminders of their deadly existence.
Separating these two worlds is a nondescript cul-de-sac ringed by steel-framed business units. At the far end is number five. Purporting to be a printing centre, it is in fact the heart of the British National Party’s administrative and fundraising operation.
From the mythical new Jerusalem of Dundonald in Northern Ireland, strangers have plundered the BNP’s membership files in search of cash. There are shutters and newly installed shredders to deter prying eyes. Only the most favoured have visited the call centre, unceremoniously ushered upstairs upon arrival and into the offices of Jim Dowson’s empire where he could hold court in privacy.
Downstairs, the staff bickered, fought and betrayed the professionalism that Dowson and the BNP leadership went out of their way to present to the membership. Dowson originally set up the Belfast operation to promote his anti-abortion and fundraising campaigns across Ireland. The BNP was an add-on, an afterthought, after Dowson persuaded the BNP that it needed his professional services.
Sparks first flew with the arrival last year of Jennifer Matthys, the newly married daughter of Nick Griffin, the BNP leader. Matthys and her husband moved to a flat above a petrol station in the staunchly Protestant village of Comber and were presented with a Volkswagen car as part of their moving package. Some thought Ms Matthys was there to provide an ideological input and perhaps become Griffin’s eyes and ears in Dowson’s base.
Instead of the ideology she was supposedly sent to deliver, she became embroiled in a clash of personalities with the eldest of Dowson’s children, James Jnr, who ran a plumbing company, Ultraplumb.com Ltd, from the upstairs offices, a company that does business with Catholic communities.
Dowson Jnr had developed a swagger not dissimilar to that of his father and Ms Matthys took exception, in particular to his insistence that he was about to be installed into her old job as head of the BNP’s youth wing. Dowson Jnr quickly found himself not only out of the call centre, but seemingly out of the BNP. To the rest of the staff it became obvious very quickly that there was only room for one golden child in the call centre, and there seemed little room for dissent. Ms Matthys is silent but deadly while working in the upstairs office, bereft of friends, life or humour.
Any pretence that the call centre was a secure haven for BNP members’ details was shattered in October 2009 when Searchlight investigators revealed to the Irish press that the party had recruited casual staff to work on its European election campaign using the recruitment firms Office Angels and Grafton in Belfast.
This came at a time when staff at the call centre were actively encouraging supporters not to join the party via its website, claiming it was insecure and suggesting members and supporters should take out and renew membership over the phone. Their details were in fact manually taken down on pieces of paper and stuffed into envelopes. Call centre staff were being paid commission on recruitment, sales and subscriptions to publications, and so began an ongoing campaign against the party’s webmaster Simon Bennett, who also had an interest in membership sales and subscriptions. The falling-outs and excessive competitiveness in the call centre were always going to lead to difficulty. Among the staff was a woman who offered sexual services to high rolling clients from the office, another woman who lived in a hardline republican area and Peter Dempster, a foulmouthed evangelical racist whom Dowson had entrusted with the care of Ms Matthys and her husband Angus. It was an explosive mix.
Later that month, the BNP’s membership list was leaked for the second time within a year. What the call centre did not reveal was that not only had there been a report to the police that a laptop had been stolen from the call centre containing details of thousands of BNP members and the party accounts, but that there was a very real fear that this information was now in the hands of Irish republicans.
Inside the call centre, staff were offered more bonuses and overtime as hundreds of angry and abusive members and supporters rang the office to vent their fury over the leak. There then followed a ludicrous propaganda film from the call centre of a member of staff sitting typing away on a keyboard in the absence of any terminal or computer screen.
Party members were turning against the call centre.
A series of high profile exposes by Searchlight followed, including publication of a picture that Dowson distributed of himself holding what appeared to be a sawn-off shot gun, to allegedly intimidate a former employee. Driven by paranoia, Dowson began to feel he was under threat not only from republicans but also from loyalists who had read of his apparent louche lifestyle and fundraising ventures. Of particular interest to loyalist paramilitaries, who are quick to seize upon any suggestion of available cash, is Dowson’s Europe-funded post-conflict cross-community work. A stern message to staff was soon posted around the centre forbidding them from standing outside, and the door from the call centre to the upstairs offices was shut permanently as a further security measure.
By the new year, the call centre had come under increased scrutiny. The party had agreed not to recruit new members, as a result of ongoing legal action by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and was in the midst of a series of punishing court cases. But Dowson’s Jeep Cherokee was nowhere to be seen while office staff began to tire under the weight of the endless numbers of begging phone calls and letters going out to party members. Fewer of the party hierarchy were visiting the call centre and as new security shutters went up, a desperate sense of paranoia and suspicion set in.
At one party meeting in England, Dowson turned up with his own minder in tow, the self-confessed English football hooligan and club doorman Martin Ambridge, who went on to feature as an employee in the Northern Ireland office.
Dowson’s wife Ann began spending more time at a property he owns in Spain for his supposed charity work at Plaza Del Corazon De Jesus. Dowson, meanwhile, moved into a log cabin he laughably describes as the “guest house” at the back of his family home.
In Dowson’s absence, his sister-in-law Marion Thomas and his longstanding accountant John Thompson, who was appointed as the BNP accountant, took over the running of the office. Another Englishman and relative by marriage, Alan Turner, took over the running of call centre telephone inquiries, while Ambridge and Karen Lowrie, the wife of a serving Northern Ireland police officer, assisted him.
Shortly before the general election Dowson claimed his life was threatened by Mark Collett, the BNP’s head of publicity. However this accusation appears to have stemmed from Dowson’s power grab for greater control of a party he once claimed he had never even joined. Desperate to keep his credit flowing with the printer Romac Press Ltd in east Belfast, Dowson offered the company the contract to print the BNP’s literature as well as his own anti-abortion material. Dowson used the alleged threat to move against Bennett to disastrous effect when Bennett pulled the plug on the website on the eve of the May elections and launched a barrage of attacks on Dowson.
Tom Gower, the party’s election candidate in Coventry North East, was sent to Northern Ireland from Nuneaton to give the office some backbone.
The persistent scrutiny not just from Searchlight but also by BNP members themselves prompted Thompson to quit the thankless role of BNP accountant, taking Zack McAdam, his evangelical computer guru, with him.
For the Matthyses, the move to Northern Ireland has become a nightmare. Ms Matthys was appointed a director of Dowson’s front company Adlorries.com Ltd in July 2009, but all it has these days appears to be a mountain of debt. She faces being further shunned in the small publicity-shunning community where she lives after Searchlight revealed that she carried the flags, along with Dowson’s daughters, for the Goldsprings True Defenders Flute Band. Often tearful, Jennifer frequently flies to her father’s side, leaving Angus to lock up the call centre alone.
For Angus, the highlight of his emotionally austere life in Northern Ireland is his responsibility for opening the volumes of mail that arrive daily. It’s hardly the life he studied for or even expected when he agreed to marry Jennifer. With two large rubber gloves he sifts through razor blades, excrement, needles and used prophylactics in search of cash donations that he can present to his wife for counting. It must be the highlight of Jenny’s life there as these unsolicited donations sometimes amount to £2,000 a week, though that is a far cry from the donations of up to £40,000 in one week during the election campaign..
The Dundonald base has become the heartbeat of the BNP and, given how Dowson has made himself irreplaceable in Griffin’s party, it is likely to remain so for as long as the leader remains in place.
Thanks to Matthew Collins at Hope not Hate
You can subscribe to Searchlight magazine by clicking here