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Europe grounded route, insists Hamilton

By David Young, PA

Published 09/11/2016

European officials have denied making a ruling that scuppered a State-funded deal to rescue Northern Ireland's only air link with the US
European officials have denied making a ruling that scuppered a State-funded deal to rescue Northern Ireland's only air link with the US

The DUP has lashed out after European officials denied making any ruling that scuppered a State-funded deal to rescue Northern Ireland's only air link with the US.

First Minister Arlene Foster had blamed "Brussels bureaucracy" for thwarting the Executive's £9m support package for United Airlines to maintain its Belfast to Newark service.

Her DUP colleague and Economy Minister Simon Hamilton had levelled similar criticism against the European Commission, claiming its rules on State aid torpedoed the deal.

A spokeswoman for the Commission said: "To be clear, the European Commission received a complaint alleging that the measure was in breach of EU rules, which it looked into, but we did not take any decision on the matter. The Northern Irish authorities and United Airlines have themselves decided to end their arrangement."

e service early in the new year.

Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken said the Executive needed to provide clarity "as a matter of urgency" on who decided the funding was inadmissible under EU rules.

"This is absolute dynamite," he said. "It now appears that the vital direct link to North America was pulled without a formal ruling being received from Brussels.

"Indeed, if a formal ruling had been received, we could probably have found ourselves in a much better position to marshal opposition to the unnamed complainant and maintain this vital strategic air link."

Last night Mr Hamilton insisted the facts "are straightforward". "The European Commission informed United Airlines that, in its view, the support package for the Belfast-Newark service constituted State aid. That was conveyed at a meeting at which my department was represented along with United," he said.

"The Commission was also poised to trigger a formal investigation into a complaint received about the Executive package.

"Faced with the Commission's starting viewpoint and the likelihood that this would be confirmed in the formal investigation of the complaint, United took the decision to end the service.

"I deeply regret that decision, but that does not mean we were wrong to try to save the route.

"Our critics have to decide if they are complaining about the loss of the route or our attempt to preserve it. They can't have it both ways."

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