Brexit

'No minutes' of DUP Brexit donor's meetings with Stormont bodies

Richard Cook met with Invest NI, Belfast City Council and a Stormont department in the months following the EU referendum
Brendan Hughes

NO minutes were recorded of meetings the DUP arranged for a Brexit campaign donor to discuss "investment opportunities" with public bodies in Northern Ireland.

Campaigners raised concerns yesterday after The Irish News revealed businessman Richard Cook's meetings with Invest NI, Belfast City Council and a Stormont department in the months following the EU referendum.

Mr 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 its Brexit campaign.

Questions have persisted over the DUP's Brexit campaign money, of which £282,000 was spent on a front-page ad in the British newspaper Metro – a publication not circulated in Northern Ireland.

Last week it emerged the DUP received a further £13,000 from CRC after the 2016 referendum. The party said it used donations to "further the cause of unionism".

Mr Cook is CRC's only known member. Northern Ireland legislation prevents the Electoral Commission from publishing political donations made before July 2017.

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".

It also said CRC's donations were properly reported.

But Jolyon Maugham – director of the Good Law Project campaign group, which has been calling for an Electoral Commission investigation into the CRC donation – raised questions about the meetings.

He said: "What was the real deal struck between the DUP and the unknown individuals who go by the name of the CRC?

"It looks like the DUP was happy to take cash to obscure their involvement in the referendum."

The meetings involving Mr Cook in August 2016 and February 2017 were to discuss "potential investment opportunities in Northern Ireland".

Invest NI and Belfast City Council (BCC) said nothing materialised from these engagements.

The Department for Communities (DfC) said it took "no further action", but an 'expression of interest' about a development site was later submitted by HCI Holdings Limited, which "indicated that Richard Cook was to be the preferred point of contact".

"No funding has been awarded, no deals have been made, no agreement has been reached in respect to this development," a department spokesman said.

Both Invest NI and DfC said no minutes were recorded of their meetings, while BCC did not answer this question.

Sinn Féin MLA Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, the party's Brexit spokesperson, said he has written to the head of the Civil Service, Invest NI and BCC to ask about the meetings.

"Unanswered questions remain about the source of those funds and why they were funnelled through the DUP," he said.

"Given the secrecy and controversy surrounding Mr Cook, the CRC and its role in the Brexit campaign, I think it's understandable that questions are now being asked about these meetings."

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