Belfast Telegraph

DUP desire for closure unlikely to be met as BBC awaits the writs

By Noel McAdam

At the time Castlereagh council meetings rarely finished by midnight. But that was when the borough was likened by some to Peter and Iris Robinson's personal fiefdom.

Now times have changed.

The regular monthly meeting which received the long-awaited report into the council decision to award a lease to the former lover of the wife of the First Minister could again have been expected to go into the wee hours.

Instead, after just over an hour, members went "into committee" - meaning journalists had to leave - and were beginning to emerge less than an hour later.

DUP group leader and MLA Jimmy Spratt offered interviews but a few of the reporters grumbled they had no decent questions to ask since they had not been given the report.

The council said the report would be published online the following afternoon - not much use to hacks with deadlines only hours away.

And so the report came, concluding that in all likelihood Mrs Robinson was not present at the key meeting in August 2008 when the lease for a cafe to her then lover, Kirk McCambley, was finalised.

Council records show the wife of First Minister Peter Robinson arrived almost an hour late for the meeting. She then left again just over an hour later, at 9pm - before the lease for the Lock Keeper's Inn on the Lagan Tow Path was debated.

"The last reference to her in the minutes of this council meeting was... some 20 agenda items (before the lease issue arose) which would suggest that she was not present," it said.

But no official records of councillors leaving were kept at that time. The report has now recommended, however, that councillors should be given specific training on potential conflicts of interest including "personal integrity, pecuniary interest, gifts and hospitality".

The consultants said there is a lack of clarity about the current guidance on conflicts of interests which, without clearer definitions, would make it difficult to assess what constitutes an interest.

Their report also recommended the council adopt a better system for recording councillors coming and going. Under a proposal introduced in Castlereagh just last year, following the Robinson controversy, councillors can only leave a meeting when their intention to do so is acknowledged by the chairperson.

It was commissioned by the council after allegations that Mrs Robinson secured two £25,000 loans to help Mr McCambley run the cafe, but was delayed until a police investigation into potential fraud concluded with the Public Prosecution Service announcing there would be no charges against the former MP, Assembly Member and councillor.

The report reveals the council also provided £6,000 for fixtures and fittings to the kitchen at the Lock Keeper's Inn, but they will remain council assets when the lease expires and should be considered against initial estimates of £25,000.

Also in equipping and furnishing the cafe, Mr McCambley made a "considerable financial contribution" which the council estimates at around £40,000.

Thus it concluded there was no evidence of the council suffering any financial loss from the awarding of the lease.

There was also no evidence to suggest "any impropriety" by council officers or other councillors who were involved in the assessment panel for the lease, of which Mrs Robinson was not a member.

"The report exonerates everyone of wrongdoing.,'' said Mr Spratt.

"Mrs Iris Robinson in particular has been the focus of many allegations which have now been completely refuted.

"It is important that we now focus on the sterling service given by Iris to the ratepayers of Castlereagh as a first-class elected representative.

"The publication of this report brings closure to this period in Castlereagh Borough Council's history."

Consultants Deloitte also say, however, that since they did not review all emails beyond what was provided to them, or "interrogate" the council's IT systems, "our report and our work should not be relied upon as being comprehensive in such respects".

They did not interview Mrs Robinson nor Mr McCambley or others who initially registered an interest in the lease, and while Mrs Robinson was offered a two-week period to comment on the draft report given to the council in May, she declined to do so.

"Consequently, Mrs Robinson has not provided any comments on the report or its findings," although her solicitors were provided with a copy of the final report.

Mrs Robinson and her husband are now likely to pursue legal action against the BBC over the Spotlight programme which revealed the affair with the then 19-year-old Mr McCambley and reported that Mrs Robinson was obliged to declare she had a financial interest at any council meeting she attended where it was discussed - but failed to do so.

However, the BBC said it stood by its journalism and that it believed the Spotlight programme was of significant public interest.

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