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Minister Bell calls in solicitors over Brexit row with NI Chamber of Commerce chief McGregor

By Noel McAdam

Published 23/03/2016

Ann McGregor
Ann McGregor
Jonathan Bell

A Stormont minister is threatening legal action against the head of Northern Ireland's Chamber of Commerce in a row over the Brexit campaign.

Enterprise, Trade and Industry Minister Jonathan Bell has referred remarks made by Chamber chief executive Ann McGregor to his solicitor.

Mrs McGregor said that she could make no comment as the dispute escalated.

Last week she asked Mr Bell to withdraw remarks made in the Assembly that a majority of local Chamber of Commerce members were in favour of leaving the EU, as is the minister's DUP.

Afterwards the Chamber also said that it wanted Hansard, the official Assembly record, to be altered.

Mr Bell's department confirmed to the Belfast Telegraph that a solicitor had been brought in but it declined to comment further.

Mr Bell had told MLAs that he had been at a function at which Mrs McGregor had said the majority of Chamber members were supporting the drive to leave the European Union. Questioned by Ulster Unionist Alistair Patterson, Mr Bell said he had recently held talks on a Brexit with the Federation of Small Businesses and the CBI, as well as the Chamber of Commerce.

"Most recently, I was in Bushmills with the Chamber of Commerce and Ann McGregor," he added. "Interestingly, at that function, Ann McGregor said that, based on her conversations with members, the majority of members are for leaving."

However, the most recent survey by the Chamber concluded that around 81% of businesses in Northern Ireland supported staying in a reformed EU.

Just 11% of those surveyed said they wanted out of Europe, compared to 30% in the rest of the UK.

Mrs McGregor later claimed that the minister's comments did not reflect the views of the majority of Chamber members.

"I have actually asked the minister to withdraw these remarks, because I have even had people joke: 'I see you are the poster girl for the 'Out' campaign'," she said.

A Chamber spokesman added: "In all statements made by the Chamber and its officers, the Chamber has maintained a clear position of neutrality on the upcoming EU referendum, to respect the diversity of views amongst the businesses we serve.

"The Chamber does, however, report our members' views and to date we have carried out two surveys, with the most recent one highlighting that 81% of our members are in favour of staying in the EU. We will keep surveying business opinion and report the findings before the referendum on June 23. We have asked that the reference is removed from Hansard."

A statement from Mr Bell's department read: "The matter has been referred to the minister's solicitor."

The NI Chamber of Commerce said it had "nothing to add".

Business, Page 33

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