Northern Ireland news

Peter Robinson's son and Ashers manager on DUP fundraiser guest list

Guests at the DUP fundraiser on Thursday night at Tullyglass Hotel, Ballymena
Brendan Hughes

A MILLIONAIRE Brexiteer, a west Belfast businessman, an anti-abortion campaigner and Peter Robinson's son were on the guest list at a packed DUP fundraiser featuring high-profile Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Around 400 guests gathered at the Tullyglass Hotel in Ballymena on Thursday night for the event, which was hosted by DUP MPs Ian Paisley, Sammy Wilson and Paul Girvan.

Billed as an 'evening with Jacob Rees-Mogg' and including a "cooked buffet supper", the fundraiser was held in the banqueting suite with tickets at £25-a-head.

Among the guests were millionaire businessman Arron Banks, founder of the Leave.EU campaign group, as well as loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson and anti-abortion campaigner Bernie Smyth.

Others on the guest list included ex-DUP leader Peter Robinson's son Gareth Robinson and Ashers bakery general manager Daniel McArthur, who last year won a Supreme Court appeal on the so-called 'gay cake' discrimination case.

The event was also attended by various DUP politicians, including MLAs Jim Wells, Trevor Clarke and Carla Lockhart, and councillors listed as guests included Luke Poots and Gregg McKeen.

Former DUP special adviser Richard Bullick and west Belfast businessman Terry Cross were also listed as guests, as well as former Northern Ireland Conservative Neil Wilson and former UUP election candidate Colin Houston.

Ex-DUP assembly member Paul Berry – an independent unionist councillor in Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon area – was also in attendance.

Mr Berry told The Irish News he was invited by a DUP member, but has no plans to rejoin the party and will contest May's local government elections as an independent.

He said he was interested in the Brexit discussion, and he feels "unionists need to stand together at what is a crucial time in our politics".

Guests arrived to a red carpet outside at the venue's entrance flanked on a cold January night by two flaming gas burners.

It is understood the event was also sponsored, but the DUP was yesterday unable to confirm this.

The fundraiser included a Q&A session with Mr Rees-Mogg hosted by North Antrim MP Mr Paisley and East Antrim MP Mr Wilson.

Mr Paisley praised Mr Wilson's Brexit campaigning – and claimed British chancellor Philip Hammond urged him to tell Mr Wilson to "back down".

"I think it's absolutely crucial that I as a member of parliament here, but also on behalf of our party, pay tribute to Sammy Wilson for the great work that Sammy does," he said, prompting sustained applause.

"Sammy is well, well loved in the DUP but our people know that Sammy has led this fight from Northern Ireland and has been very instrumental on keeping people's toes to the fire on it.

"And in particular I had a conversation one night with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and he said, 'Could you not tell Sammy to back down?' I said, 'No, Sammy's not for backing down.' So it's important that I say that about Sammy."

It comes just days after Mr Wilson was criticised by political rivals for heckling "go to the chippy" as Westminster heard concerns of food shortages in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Theresa May's minority government is propped up by a DUP pact which sees its 10 MPs support the Conservatives on key Commons votes in exchange for an extra £1bn for Northern Ireland.

But the DUP has clashed with the British prime minister over her Brexit deal, opposing the 'backstop' plan aimed at guaranteeing no hard border in Ireland if no alternative plan is agreed.

Mr Rees-Mogg, who also opposes the backstop, told the audience he has confidence Mrs May can re-negotiate the withdrawal agreement.

Asked by Mr Wilson how he would approach negotiations differently, Mr Rees-Mogg said he would use the UK's £39 billion 'divorce bill' as leverage.

"Well it's what I would have done from day one. I would have said, 'Here's £39bn, here's a trade deal. You give us one, you can have the other. You don't give us one, you can't have the other. Thank you, and good night,'" he said, prompting applause.

A source close to the chancellor said: "We don't comment on private discussions that the chancellor may or may not have with colleagues across the political spectrum."

Meanwhile, it's emerged that Mr Paisley was double-booked as he was also on the guest list for a Tourism NI event on Thursday night.

The gala at Titanic Belfast marked the official build-up to The 148th Open golf tournament at Royal Portrush.

Among those in attendance was DUP leader Arlene Foster.

Mr Paisley was listed on the table seating plan, but his seat was left empty.

The DUP was unable to say yesterday why Mr Paisley was on the guest list given the dates clash.

Organisers of the event also did not respond to requests for a comment.

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