DUP leader Ian Paisley made angry representations in support of a grant bid by would-be Giant's Causeway visitor centre developer Seymour Sweeney, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.
In a dramatic new twist in the "Causeway cronyism" row, the Telegraph has discovered that a strongly worded letter in 2003 by Mr Paisley to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) contained a highly questionable claim in support of the tycoon's funding application.
The DUP leader stated in the letter that Mr Sweeney had the blessing of international world heritage body UNESCO for his Causeway centre scheme.
A senior UNESCO official has disputed giving any backing to the businessman. Indeed, its own position on the visitor centre debate now runs directly contrary to Mr Sweeney's blueprint.
The DUP has faced "cronyism" claims since its ministers handed a major boost to the Causeway plans tabled by the developer, who is himself a DUP member.
DUP Environment Minister Arlene Foster last month said she was "of a mind" to grant planning approval to Mr Sweeney's centre scheme.
She also stated that she had been unaware of his DUP affiliation when she announced her preliminary verdict. Environment chiefs within her department recommended refusing planning permission.
The controversy has centred on the fact that Mr Paisley's son, Ian Paisley Jnr MLA , has lobbied in support of the businessman on various issues over a number of years.
It was fuelled by the fact that Mr Paisley Jnr answered: "I know of him" when asked by a radio interviewer if he supported the developer.
Mr Sweeney sought an HLF grant for his Causeway centre proposal in 2002.
The application named the DUP leader as a prospective trustee of a charitable body which would help run the developer's centre.
It has now transpired that Mr Paisley sent a furious letter to the HLF, a public body, in January 2003, after it had turned down Mr Sweeney's bid. That letter has been obtained by this newspaper following a Freedom of Information request.
Written on Commons headed paper, it denounced the grounds for turning down the grant bid as "absolute rubbish". It also claimed, more than once, that Mr Sweeney's visitor centre plans had the support of UNESCO, the UN body which oversees world heritage sites like the Causeway.
It said: "UNESCO saw and approved the plans, and were very impressed by the proposal."
UNESCO has denied adopting such a stance. It actually issued its own mission team report on the visitor centre issue later in 2003, with recommendations that would rule out Mr Sweeney's blueprint.
This report said new Causeway premises should be built "in the footprint " of the Moyle Council visitor centre facility which was destroyed by fire in 2000.
UNESCO further stated that there should be "no extension in size and height" to the previous centre, and "no additional development" should be permitted in the vicinity.
Mr Sweeney's proposals involve a significantly larger-scale development on an alternative site in his ownership.
Mr Sweeney has spoken publicly about holding a highly-favourable meeting with senior UNESCO official Mechtild Rossler in 2001.
Ms Rossler has contested any suggestion of endorsement and would not have had the authority to personally give assent to the project.
She has made clear to the Belfast Telegraph that she would not support anything without going through the necessary UNESCO procedures.
She has also stated that UNESCO does not "decide on proposals" and that this would be a matter for Government bodies in the light of the UNESCO 2003 report.
Ms Rossler further said: "We were absolutely clear that any new visitor centre must be built in the footprint of the centre that was burnt down. That is my position and I am not moving one millimetre."
A DUP source told the Belfast Telegraph that Mr Paisley Snr had met with a UNESCO official to discuss the Causeway situation.
Mr Sweeney's proposals at the 2001 meeting differed in a key respect from those on the table by 2003. His 2001 blueprint was to have been located on Moyle Council's land above the Causeway.
By 2003 - the time of Mr Paisley's letter - his proposal was for an alternative location on his own land.