Revelations that a local council breached its own policy by paying £1,500 to attend a DUP fundraising dinner raises serious questions, a councillor has claimed.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has a policy that limits spending on attending gala dinners and events to £500, although there are now plans to get rid of the restriction.
But an internal report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) found that the local authority “did not discuss its attendance at the dinner in line with this policy” when it paid £1,500 for a table at the controversial event hosted by Ian Paisley MP in September 2017.
Sinn Fein’s Patrice Hardy criticised the council for dismissing initial concerns that it used ratepayers’ money to fund the DUP.
“I was forced to submit Freedom of Information requests and to ask the Electoral Commission to intervene, simply to try and get answers as to how ratepayers money was being used by the Council,” she said.
“Now the latest revelations from the Audit Office raise more questions about the actions of the council.”
Causeway Coast and Glens Council also shelled out for a table at the event, which took place in the Tullyglass Hotel near Ballymena and was attended by Environment Secretary Michael Gove.
Ms Hardy said no local authority can be considered as “permissible donors” to political parties and said it is “a very serious matter” if council officers knowingly breached the policy.
“The ratepayers of Mid and East Antrim have a right to know whether the DUP benefited financially from the council’s money, and if so, what is going to be done about it,” she said.
A revised policy, which would remove the spending limit and allow senior staff to use ratepayers’ cash on events involving officials without seeking councillors’ approval, is to go to full council for approval.
But Ms Hardy is against the change and branded the plans by the council to introduce a new policy for future events as “entirely unacceptable”.
“It seems incredible that council officers are now attempting to bring in a new policy that would not have any spending limit in place,” she said.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council previously said the money was paid to the hotel where the North Antrim Annual Business and Community dinner was held, and not to the DUP.
The council last night said that it takes financial prudence and accountability very seriously.
“Our robust and extensive compliance mechanisms ensure efficient, effective and transparent governance across all council functions,” it added.
“As with any expenditure, decisions taken under this policy, if ratified, will be subject to extensive and fully auditable scrutiny, both internally and externally.”