Northern Ireland councillors on defensive after taxpayers shell out £2,200 for them to stay at a nearby Slieve Donard hotel
Controversy has erupted within a Northern Ireland council over a recent promotional trip by councillors to explore the very area in which they work.
As part of a local scheme to highlight a number of 'good relations' projects, all 41 councillors in Newry, Mourne and Down District Council were offered an overnight stay in the Slieve Donard hotel.
Taxpayers forked out for the bill as seven councillors and three officials took up the offer and dined in the famous hotel before enjoying an overnight stay.
As part of the amalgamation of the old councils in the area, councillors were invited to explore community projects in the newly enlarged council area.
An issue causing controversy is the cost of the outing, initially reported by the council as £2,200.
The council said: "The figure of £2,200 is an estimate cost of the district tour. Invoices have not yet been received, the total costs will be compiled upon receipt of all relevant invoices. It should be noted that 75% of the eligible spend will be funded by OFMDFM through the council's approved Good Relations Strategy."
Councillors who took up the offer to stay were Charlie Casey, Roisin Mulgrew, Valerie Harte and Sinead Ennis from Sinn Fein; Harry Harvey and Garth Craig from DUP and Patrick Brown from Alliance. Three council officials also stayed the night.
The SDLP vice-chairperson of the Newry, Mourne and Down council, Gillian Fitzpatrick, was one of the councillors who turned down the offer of a free night in the Slieve Donard.
She said: "All 41 councillors were invited to be part of the project and to stay in the hotel.
"I chose not to go to the hotel, although I did participate in some aspects of visiting local groups.
"I would never have stayed over in the hotel. I don't live that far away. It was the personal choice of those who did stay in the hotel to do so, but if they lived close enough, why would they?
"I am a ratepayer and I like value for money. Those who did go, say they found it beneficial visiting the various areas."
A statement by Newry, Mourne and Down District Council said: "The recent Good Relations District study project was funded under the Shared Communities theme of the council's approved Good Relations Action Plan through the Active Healthy Communities Committee. The project provided elected members with the opportunity to explore a selection of good relations projects, which address the diversity of our community, through direct interaction with community and statutory representatives.
"Community representatives and elected members who participated have noted their thanks for the opportunity to engage through this dialogue project.
"As part of the two-day tour, elected members were able to avail of transportation and overnight accommodation, if required.
"For each of these aspects, a value for money assessment was undertaken by obtaining quotes from two suppliers. A total of 15 elected members registered to attend the event, with 10 indicating they would avail of the offer of overnight accommodation.
"Three elected members were, however, subsequently unable to avail of the overnight accommodation booked for them and cancellation of these rooms was not possible due to insufficient notice.
"This is just one of numerous initiatives aimed at generating discussion and interaction between elected members and community projects which have a good relations focus.
"It is important for council and the community to develop and maintain relationships, especially in this transition period of the new council given the geographical scope of the area to be engaged."