Fury over Brexit soiree sponsored by Invest NI
Public money allocated to a Northern Ireland jobs creation body was used to fund an appearance by a Eurosceptic campaigner at a pro-Brexit Champagne soiree in London, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Invest NI sponsored the pro-Brexit event, despite the body stating that it had no position on European Union membership.
Now it can be revealed that public money was used to pay for an appearance by Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, who has been one of the most prominent voices in the campaign for the UK to leave the EU.
In a response to a Freedom of Information request, Invest NI said that it had funded a "minority share" in the total cost of the event.
It also stated that sponsorship included a proportion of the speaker's fees, travel and accommodation.
Mr Hannan was the event's sole speaker and made a speech entitled 'How British financial services will flourish outside the EU'.
A spokeswoman for Invest NI said: "The subject of the event Q&A was not relevant to our decision to sponsor the event.
"We sponsored this event as it provided a networking opportunity to meet decision-makers from the funds sector."
News of the sponsorship broke just days after the Government-funded business advisory body declared it would not take a position on the upcoming referendum.
Tom Kelly, chair of Northern Ireland Stronger in Europe, said: "This seems incredulous on two fronts.
"Firstly, given that Invest NI declared it was neutral on the referendum, why then was Invest NI sponsoring an event involved with the Brexit debate at all, let alone sponsoring an event putting forward only one side of the argument?
"Secondly, given Northern Ireland receives the largest share of foreign direct investment from the financial services sector outside of London and that the majority of City voices from the Bank of England downwards have expressed reservations about Brexit, why would a Government agency have thought this was a good idea?
"However, it's done, and Invest NI must answer for itself. We are confident with or without their support.
"The vast majority of businesses in Northern Ireland are behind our campaign to remain."
The event - EUreka or EUlogy? Brexit and the British financial services industry - was run by Heritage, a financial services company with bases in Belfast, London, Malta and Guernsey. Between 80 and 100 guests were offered canapes and Champagne at the gathering, which was held in London on January 28.
Invest NI was unable to disclose even a banded figure for how much it had spent on the event, but was able to confirm that its sponsorship had gone towards the cost of the room hire, refreshments, equipment, technology, speaker's fees, and travel and accommodation.
A spokeswoman for Invest NI confirmed the body had not sponsored any pro-Remain or neutral EU events.
Mr Hannan will debate with Lord Mandelson on the EU referendum next month.
It is understood that he is not receiving a speaker's fee but his travel and accommodation expenses will be met by organisers, Manufacturing NI.
Heritage Financial Services declined to comment.