Northern Ireland

Gove "apologises" for attending Ian Paisley dinner

Michael Gove Image copyright Getty Images

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has apologised for attending a dinner hosted last year by Ian Paisley, according to a Conservative councillor.

David Harding said Mr Gove was unaware the event in the Tullyglass Hotel was a "fundraiser".

The Coleraine councillor said he received the personal apology at a meeting in Belfast.

The news comes after a second council was criticised for using rate payers money to sponsor a table at the event.

Causeway Coast and Glens Council paid £1,500 for the table at last September's event hosted by the DUP's Ian Paisley.

It was previously revealed Mid and East Antrim Borough Council had sponsored another table for the same sum.

That is now being treated as a "donation" to the North Antrim MP by the Electoral Commission.

Mr Harding, who is a councillor on the Causeway Coast and Glens Council, said he had met Mr Gove and a special advisor some time after the Tullyglass dinner and he said both apologised to him.

"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" said Mr Harding.

"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."

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Ian Paisley said a complaint had been made by "political rivals"

Mr Harding added that he believed Causeway Coast and Glens Council "genuinely thought it was a business event".

He said the £1,500 was ratepayers money and it "has to be spent well", but that "it is the sort of money that can be spent sensibly to promote business in the area".

Mr Harding added: "I think it's just disgraceful that this event was presented as one thing and was clearly something else."

Causeway Coast and Glens council said the payment was within its guidelines.

'Bragged about'

Councils are not considered "permissible donors" and money from such bodies must be returned.

In a letter to Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson, Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council said the money was paid directly to the Tullyglass Hotel which hosted the dinner.

But Mr Dickson said the payment raises serious questions.

"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," he said.

Image caption Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said there are serious questions to be answered.

"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."

The Alliance MLA said he was also concerned about how the decision to sponsor a table was taken.

"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 said.

Wider audit

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 council's procurement policy and specifically the delegated responsibility to officers".

It added "you will therefore not find a specific council minute which relates to this matter".

In a further statement, it said the keynote speaker at the event was MP Michael Gove and that subjects discussed included Brexit, passenger air tariffs and their impact upon tourism and business travel and the effect of public sector cuts upon rural services.

"Council agreed to attend the event and invite guests who would benefit from both the subject matter and the potential networking opportunities," it said.

"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."

The Northern Ireland Auditor's office has confirmed it looked into the payment as part of a wider audit of Causeway Coast and Glens Council and will be making recommendations in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the Electoral Commission has said it is aware of the payment made by the council, but can't comment any further as its investigation is ongoing.

In a statement, Mr Paisley said he was "content to wait for the outcome of the commission's inquiry" which he added "commenced after political rivals made a complaint".

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

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