Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Paisley Jnr back under spotlight in Sweeney row

SDLP MLA makes official complaint

Junior Minister Ian Paisley Jnr was due back at Stormont today, amid yet more controversy over his links to developer Seymour Sweeney.

The DUP MLA accompanied his First Minister father on an official visit to the US last week which culminated in a meeting with President Bush.

But back home, he was coming under scrutiny once again over his lobbying for Mr Sweeney, a DUP member and leading property tycoon.

Last night, an SDLP MLA announced that he has made an official complaint over the latest revelations, which related to the sale of Government land at Ballee, Ballymena.

As this newspaper revealed on Thursday, Mr Paisley Jnr made representations to the Department for Social Development in support of bids for the land from a grouping that included Mr Sweeney.

The official complaint ? from north Antrim assemblyman Declan O'Loan - stems from the fact that the DUP politician's lobbying continued after he was made a Stormont Minister in May.

Mr Paisley protested in writing to Social Development Minister Ritchie that a new Government valuation of £75m for the land was "extortionate". A £50m deal was subsequently agreed in an out-of-court settlement, and is due to be competed in the very near future.

The DUP junior minister has stated that he was acting as an MLA, not a Minister, on the issue. This stance has been backed by OFMDFM, the Stormont department where he works and which is headed by his father and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness.

Mr Paisley Jnr has lobbied heavily on behalf of Mr Sweeney on a number of business projects, particularly his controversial plans for a visitor centre development at the Giant's Causeway.

Mr O'Loan last night said: "I have not been one of those who said that Ian Paisley Jnr's strong support for Seymour Sweeney over the Giant's Causeway while acting as an MLA was necessarily wrong. Fundamentally, it is for the electorate to judge that."

The SDLP assemblyman said his complaint related to Mr Paisley's continued lobbying on the Ballee land after he had been made a Minister. Mr O'Loan said there was a clear Stormont Executive interest in maximising the price of the land.

"I do not see how it can be proper for a Minister to argue against the Executive interest in a matter involving many millions of pounds," he continued.

"I believe that Ian Paisley Jnr should have withdrawn totally from involvement in this matter as soon as he became Minister."

Mr O'Loan is seeking a full examination of the issue, and has submitted a letter to both OFMDFM and the Assembly Committee on Standards.

Mr Paisley has maintained that he acted properly on a constituency issue. In a statement to this newspaper, an OFMDFM spokesperson said: "Ian Paisley Jnr was acting as an MLA and not as a Junior Minister in this matter."

In an interview for the BBC broadcast on Thursday, Mr Paisley said: "I am there to represent the needs first of all of my constituents and to ensure also that the public purse is satisfied in this particular case."

The Belfast Telegraph revealed last week that the DUP MLA made high-level representations in January in connection with a £9m bid for the Ballee land by Mr Sweeney and partners.

He was then informed in writing by direct rule Minister David Hanson that the land was already valued at £36.7m by Government, and a further re-valuation would be required before any sale.

The official valuation subsequently rose in stages to £75m. Mr Paisley has claimed the Department had "started to take the mickey" on the price.

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