Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Paisley could face probe over lobbying for Ulster developer

DUP leader Ian Paisley may face a parliamentary standards investigation over his controversial lobbying for would-be Giant's Causeway visitor centre developer Seymour Sweeney, it can be revealed today.

As the Belfast Telegraph disclosed last week, Mr Paisley made questionable claims when pressing the Heritage Lottery Fund in support of a grant bid by the tycoon, who is a DUP member.

The MP stated in an angry letter in 2003 that Mr Sweeney's Causeway plans had the approval of UNESCO, the United Nations body that oversees the tourist attraction's world heritage status.

This has been firmly denied by UNESCO. However, Mr Paisley's politician son Ian Paisley Jnr has defended the letter, describing its claim as "fair" .

SDLP MLA John Dallat today said he is lodging a complaint with the Commons standards watchdog and its equivalent at the Stormont Assembly.

Mr Dallat said: "I believe this is a serious enough matter to warrant referral to the standards authorities.

"This letter was written on House of Commons headed paper in an attempt to obtain money for the developer from a public body. It contains claims that are extremely questionable, as well as very hostile language towards the organisation."

The DUP has not responded to Belfast Telegraph queries on the subject.

Mr Dallat's complaint will be assessed by Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Sir Philip Mawer who will firstly decide if there are grounds for a preliminary inquiry.

Sir Philip's oversees compliance by MPs with their code of conduct. In some cases, he makes reports to the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee.

Disclosure of Mr Paisley's 2003 letter has heightened the "cronyism" row surrounding Mr Sweeney's plans for a commercial Causeway centre.

DUP Environment Minister Arlene Foster last month announced she is "of a mind" to approve the scheme. She said she had no knowledge of the developer's DUP links when she reached her view and had not spoken about the application to Mr Paisley or his son.

Questions are, nevertheless, continuing to be asked about the lobbying by the Paisleys in support of the businessman over the years. The DUP leader's letter to the HLF was written after it had turned down a grant application from Mr Sweeney.

The document, which appears to have been signed on Mr Paisley's behalf by his son, said: "The application as presented has UNESCO approval and, more importantly, it was a multi-million pound scheme which ought to have attracted Heritage Lottery Fund support."

The letter also stated: "UNESCO saw and approved the plans and they were actually very impressed by the proposal."

Ian Paisley Jnr is standing by the letter and told a BBC interviewer last Friday: "The characterisation that it was supported or approved in a general way, I think, was a fair characterisation, because anyone who knows how UNESCO works knows that they do not have a formal approval route, that it can only be a general approval.

"And I think that that was fair and for it now to be characterised as something stronger than that general note of support, I think, is grossly unfair to Dr Paisley, grossly unfair to me and grossly unfair to the DUP."

The claims of UNESCO enthusiasm for Mr Sweeney's plans first surfaced in connection with a 2001 meeting between the developer and senior UNESCO heritage official Mechtild Rossler.

Dr Rossler has strongly rejected any suggestion that she backed his scheme.

"We don't deal with private developers and I expressed that very clearly to Mr Sweeney as, under the World Heritage Convention, we deal with Governments," she said last week.

UNESCO formally addressed the visitor centre issue in February 2003, when a mission team headed by Dr Rossler visited the Causeway. Its conclusions, which remain official UNESCO policy, run contrary to Mr Sweeney's plans in terms of the scale and location of any new building.

There were some suggestions last week that the developer's HLF grant bid related solely to his previous visitor centre scheme for land owned by Moyle Council.

But this project had actually collapsed 11 months before Mr Paisley's letter to the Lottery body was written.

Moyle Council took its land off the market in February 2002 and Mr Sweeney responded by submitting a planning application that month for a centre on land in his ownership.

This same application is now awaiting a final verdict from the Environment Minister.

Mrs Foster appears to have endorsed Dr Rossler's account of her 2001 meeting with Mr Sweeney. She said: "They didn't look at the proposal regarding Mr Sweeney because he left it into them and she rightly said to him at that particular point in time, I don't deal with private individuals, I deal with Governments."

Mr Sweeney's lottery grant bid envisaged a charitable trust being formed to help run his Causeway centre. As this newspaper recently revealed, the application named Mr Paisley as a future trustee of the proposed body.

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