Belfast Telegraph

Probe into council table at Ian Paisley dinner

Watchdog to investigate if ratepayers' cash misused

By Suzanne Breen

Northern Ireland's local government auditor is to hold a review after Mid and East Antrim Borough Council paid £1,500 to sponsor a table at a dinner hosted by DUP MP Ian Paisley.

The Electoral Commission also said it was aware of the matter, which it is considering in line with its enforcement policy.

Environment Minister Michael Gove was the guest speaker at the event in Ballymena's Tullyglass Hotel last September.

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council said the money was paid to the hotel where the North Antrim Annual Business and Community dinner was held, and not to the DUP. It added: "Elected members at full council in August 2017 agreed to purchase this table and the event was attended by elected members from different political parties, senior officers and representatives from the agri-food sector across the borough.

"Council was requested to make payment to the Tullyglass Hotel and did so via electronic payment.

"No money was exchanged between council and the DUP."

In a statement the Northern Ireland Audit Office said: "We are aware of that particular issue and will specifically review that transaction as part of our audit procedures when we come to review the accounts."

Sinn Fein Mid and East Antrim councillor Patrice Hardy welcomed the news that the Electoral Commission was looking into the event.

She said: "I raised concerns at the time of the DUP dinner hosted by North Antrim MP Ian Paisley last year that ratepayers' money may have been used to fund that party, as East and Mid Antrim Council had bought a table at the event.

"I have attempted to get to the bottom of this matter, including submitting Freedom of Information requests to the council.

"I welcome the fact the Electoral Commission has confirmed it is looking into whether or not the DUP benefited financially from the council's money, as local authorities are not permissible donors to political parties." The DUP said: "Ian Paisley hosted an annual MP's constituency dinner.

"The event was attended by civic and political figures from across the community.

"It was not a DUP fundraising dinner."

Following the event local TUV councillor Timothy Gaston was among those asking for clarity about the dinner.

The SDLP's Declan O'Loan said the occasion was portrayed in the media as "an expressly party political event".

Mr O Loan added: "I think fuller explanations are required."

Controversy surrounded the attendance at the dinner of PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton.

But the PSNI said at the time: "The Chief Constable was invited to the Annual North Antrim Constituency Dinner by the MP Ian Paisley and accepted the invitation as his guest.

"The Chief Constable made no financial contribution to, or at, the event and did not purchase a ticket, as he was there as an invited guest of the MP.

"The Chief Constable and senior team are invited to attend a range of events hosted by elected representatives and are happy to consider opportunities for engagement at that level from any and all political parties."

Mr Hamilton sat at a table with Mr Gove and a number of senior business figures from across a range of organisations in Northern Ireland.

A PSNI source said that at no time did the Chief Constable think the event was a fundraiser.

Belfast Telegraph

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