DUP arranged 'investment meetings' for Brexit campaign donor
THE DUP arranged for a major party donor who bankrolled its Brexit campaign to discuss "investment opportunities" with public bodies in Northern Ireland.
Richard Cook, a former vice chairman of the Scottish Conservatives, chairs the Constitutional Research Council (CRC) – a pro-union business group that donated £435,000 to the DUP during the EU referendum campaign.
He was involved in a series of senior meetings with Invest NI, Belfast City Council and a Stormont department in the months following the EU referendum, The Irish News has learned.
The meetings were to discuss "potential investment opportunities in Northern Ireland". Invest NI and Belfast council said nothing materialised from these engagements.
Some were arranged and attended by DUP councillor Lee Reynolds – the party's director of policy who led the official Vote Leave campaign in Northern Ireland. One was held at the request of the Department for the Economy (DfE), which at the time was headed by a DUP minister.
Questions have persisted over the DUP's Brexit campaign money in the years since June 2016 when the UK voted to leave the European Union.
More than half was spent on a £282,000 front-page wraparound advertisement in the British newspaper Metro – a publication not circulated in Northern Ireland.
Some MPs have called on the Electoral Commission to probe links between Vote Leave and the DUP, but the watchdog says it "does not have grounds" for a full investigation.
Last week it emerged the DUP received a further £13,000 donation from CRC in the months after the referendum. The party said it used donations to "further the cause of unionism at home and abroad".
Mr Cook is CRC's only known member. Northern Ireland legislation prevents the Electoral Commission from publishing political donations made before July 2017.
Two Invest NI officials met with Mr Richard Cook at its headquarters on August 4 2016 at the request of DfE to discuss "potential investment opportunities in Northern Ireland".
A separate meeting was held on February 15 2017 at Invest NI headquarters involving two senior officials, Mr Cook and a representative of Highgate – a real estate investment and hospitality management company.
The second engagement was arranged at the request of Tourism NI to discuss "hotel accommodation in Northern Ireland", Invest NI said.
An Invest NI spokeswoman said there are no minutes of the meetings, and nothing came from them.
Belfast City Council's chief executive Suzanne Wylie and its then director of city centre development met with Mr Reynolds and Mr Cook on August 16 2016.
Another meeting was held on February 15 2017, involving Ms Wylie, Mr Cook, a US investment company representative, the council's director of legal and civic services, and the former directors of planning and city centre development.
The council said it was to "explore the potential proposition of a significant investment company to fund major commercial building projects in Belfast targeting regeneration".
"Prior to those meetings Mr Cook was not known to any of the senior management team," a spokeswoman said.
"The council regularly meets with potential investors, and their representatives, who express an interest in pursuing projects in the city.
"It is normal procedure that the chief executive and/or members of her senior management team will host introductory meetings in order to provide information or to signpost investors to others who can assist them in taking their projects forward."
She added: "Nothing materialised from these meetings and there was no further follow-up."
Asked who requested the meetings, the council said Mr Cook "requested the meetings and this request was relayed via councillor Reynolds".
Also on February 15 2017, Mr Cook met at Belfast City Hall with two officials from the Belfast Regeneration Directorate in the Department for Communities (DfC).
DfC said this was arranged by Mr Reynolds and was "about potential development sites in Belfast city centre including Queen's Quay".
The DUP said its "number one priority is to bring more and better jobs to Northern Ireland", and Mr Cook was "treated the same as any other potential investor".
"The CRC’s donations to the DUP were properly reported. Indeed we voluntarily published the full details of the donor and the donation at a time when that was not a legal requirement," a spokesman said.
Mr Reynolds said in a statement: "One of my roles as a Belfast city councillor is to secure investment for Belfast.
"Carrying out that role is not a conflict of interest nor a breach of the rules as an individual councillor.”
DfE did not respond to requests for a comment.