O'Loan slams Audit Office's guidance over 'DUP dinner'

Shauna Loughran

Reporter:

Shauna Loughran

GUIDANCE issued by the Northern Ireland Audit Office to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council over the controversial ‘DUP dinner’ issue have been branded ‘very worrying’.

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council paid £1,500 for a table at an event hosted by DUP North Antrim MP Ian Paisley, in September 2017 at the Tullyglass House Hotel.

The British Environment Secretary Michael Gove was in attendance. The Electoral Commission is currently investigating if the £1,500 sum paid was a donation.

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council deny this is the case.

The Northern Ireland Audit Office was also asked to investigate.

Local government auditor Pamela McCreedy advised MEABC to ensure councillors have "up-to-date information" and to consider amending its policy on attendance at gala dinners and other events.

The auditor said that payments were made directly to the hotel and were "correctly recorded in the accounts so there are no concerns with the truth and fairness of the accounts in relation to this issue".

She added that because the Electoral Commission is investigating, "I do not intend to take any further action at this stage".

SDLP Councillor Declan O’Loan said: “It is a very serious matter when a Council takes a table at the Annual Constituency Dinner of a DUP MP at a cost of £1,500, and when its councillors did not have a proper description of the event when they agreed to it.

“I consider the report in the Annual Audit Letter to be a dereliction of the Audit Office duty to ensure proper governance.

“They have released much less information and commentary than is contained in the Report To Those Charged With Governance, which is given to Council on a private basis.

“That Report in itself is weak, and I have made that view clear to the Audit Office. The attempt to defend the council administration by saying that the party political nature of the event only became clear after the Council authorised attendance does not stack up.

“Once it became clear that the Council was about to attend a DUP Gala Dinner with a substantial amount of its contribution going to the DUP, it was then obvious that the Council had not authorised expenditure for that purpose, and the council administration should have halted the booking.

“The Audit Office fails to make that criticism.

“The Audit Office is one of the few protections against the scandals which have become rampant in recent years, and I find its weakness very worrying.”

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council previously issued a statement saying: “Council received an invitation to a North Antrim Annual Business and Community dinner hosted and facilitated by Ian Paisley MP, with special guest Rt Hon Michael Gove MP and sponsored by Belfast International Airport.

“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 paid The Tullyglass Hotel via electronic payment. No money was exchanged between Council and the DUP.

“Council will fully co-operate with any investigation.”

It was also recently revealed that Conservative Party member Jacob Rees-Mogg's has planned to partake in a fundraiser for the DUP.

A Brexit supporter, Mr Rees-Mogg is set to speak at an event later this month organised by the DUP North Antrim MP Ian Paisley.

Mr Rees-Mogg will follow in the footsteps of Michael Gove, British Environment Secretary who spoke at a DUP event at the Tullyglass House Hotel in September 2017, as well as Defence secretary Gavin Williamson who attended a DUP gala dinner.

Tory MP Priti Patel was also pictured with Ian Paisley and other DUP party members including Sammy Wilson, Jim Shannon and John Finaly after attending a DUP fundraising event last year.

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