Belfast International Airport defends sponsorship of DUP fundraising dinner
Belfast International Airport has defended its decision to sponsor a DUP fundraiser, saying it is campaigning for the removal of air passenger duty which involves "engaging" with senior government figures.
The airport has come in for heavy criticism over its involvement with the annual North Antrim DUP dinner on Friday.
Among those attending were senior party figures including Ian Paisley and Sammy Wilson.
Eurosceptic Tory MP Priti Patel, who had to resign as International Development Minister last November after breaching the Ministerial Code by holding unauthorised meetings with Israeli officials, attended and was interviewed by Mr Paisley.
Sinn Fein MLA Declan Kearney criticised the airport, saying he was concerned about the "transparency of the event" and who was to benefit.
Tables of 10 at the Galgorm Resort dinner cost £1,500.
In a letter inviting Mid and East Antrim Council to take a table, organisers said it was to assess the "potential for local businesses to capitalise on (Brexit)".
It did not mention that it was the annual North Antrim DUP dinner. Yesterday the DUP's Audrey Wales took to Twitter to say councillors attending "paid their own tickets".
Former DUP MLA Phillip Logan tweeted a picture of himself with Ms Patel, describing it as a "great evening".
When challenged on the cost of seats, Mr Logan said it was "important the war chest is always ready for battle".
He tweeted: "There is no other show in town, therefore we need to be prepared. Fundraisers do help."
South Antrim MLA Mr Kearney said he intended to question the airport owners on whether they thought it "appropriate" to sponsor the event.
"It would raise questions and perceptions regarding partisan support for one political party," he said.
"I am also concerned that the International Airport may have been sponsoring an event which was positively promoting Brexit at a time when the Tory Brexit agenda poses one of the biggest threats to face the airport and the future of the regional and island economies, by putting jobs and workers' rights at risk."
The airport said: "Belfast International Airport is a privately owned company and doesn't receive Government subsidies or assistance.
"We support all our political parties where it is clear the events they organise, or are a part of, are to the benefit of the airport. We are currently campaigning for the removal of air passenger duty and that means engaging with senior Government figures to get our points across.
"We have created almost 1,000 jobs through attracting increased passenger numbers, but that is only a fraction of what we could achieve if we didn't have this tax." A number of DUP members tweeted pictures from the event.
Paul Frew MLA said: "Brilliant support for the annual North Antrim DUP dinner with guest speaker Priti Patel MP.
"Great to have you here in the great constituency of North Antrim Priti."
East Antrim MP Mr Wilson tweeted: "Great to have my friend Patel in Northern Ireland for the annual North Antrim DUP dinner.
"Priti is a strong ally as we continue the battle in parliament to regain control of our laws, our money and our borders."
Mr Paisley also tweeted: "Thanks to all our members, friends and supporters in North Antrim who made our annual dinner such a success. DUP thank you Patel for her participation enjoy NI."
A party spokesman said: "All income and expenditure arising from the event will be handled in accordance with our rules and regulatory obligations."