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Michael Gove apologised for attending Paisley dinner, claims councillor

Conservative party councillor David Harding has said that Environment Secretary Michael Gove has apologised for attending a controversial dinner hosted by Ian Paisley last year.

The apology comes after the BBC reported that Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council paid £1,500 for the table at the event hosted by the North Antrim MP at the Tullyglass Hotel in Ballymena in September 2017.

Mr Harding, a councillor in Causeway Coast and Glens, said that he received a personal apology from Mr Gove at a meeting in Belfast.

Causeway Coast and Glens said its attendance at what was billed as a "business engagement dinner" would be beneficial for its guests and for the networking opportunities.

A decision by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council to also sponsor a table for £1,500 at the same event is being investigated by the Electoral Commission.

Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council said the sponsoring of the table was within its guidelines.

Mr Harding said he received apologies from Mr Gove and a special advisor after Mr Gove attended the dinner.

"There's a clear instruction from the Conservative Party that members of the government do not attend functions that promote the interests of other parties or raise money for them and it shouldn't happen" Mr Harding told the BBC.

"They said they were clear this was a business event, that it wasn't a DUP event, that although it had been arranged by Ian Paisley, this wasn't about raising money for the DUP which it obviously was."

Mr Harding said that ratepayers money must be spent well but that he thought the council genuinely believed it was a business event.

"I think it's just disgraceful that this event was presented as one thing and was clearly something else," the Conservative councillor said.

In a letter to Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson, Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council said the £1,500 was paid directly to Tullyglass Hotel.

"This is public money and we are now talking about two councils spending over £3,000 of ratepayers' money for something that was billed - and is all over the local newspapers - as a DUP fundraising event," Mr Dickson told the BBC.

"A dinner which was held in Ballymena by Ian Paisley MP and indeed was bragged about as a fundraising event by some of his councillors."

"This wasn't a decision by local councillors, this appears to have been taken entirely by council officers on the basis of a letter they received from an organisation which according to Mid and East Antrim, doesn't even exist," he added.

In the letter, seen by the BBC, the council said the spend level for attendance at the dinner did not require councillors' agreement in accordance with its procurement policy.

In a further statement to the BBC, the council said: "Council agreed to attend the event and invite guests who would benefit from both the subject matter and the potential networking opportunities.

"Those guests included representatives of our hospitality, food distribution and production, agriculture and leisure industries with an emphasis on the rural aspects of the borough."

In a statement Mr Paisley - who is currently suspended from the DUP over his Commons suspension - said he was "content to wait for the outcome of the commission's inquiry" which he said "commenced after political rivals made a complaint".

He added his "annual community and business engagement dinner in Ballymena was very successful and enjoyed by all who attended."

The Northern Ireland Auditor's office confirmed to the BBC it looked into the payment as part of a wider audit of the council and will make recommendations in the coming weeks.

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