Northern Ireland news

Invest NI redacts log of meeting with DUP Brexit campaign donor

Richard Cook was involved after the referendum in meetings with public bodies including Invest NI
Brendan Hughes

INVEST NI has redacted logs of a meeting th eDUP arranged for a Brexit campaign donor to discuss "investment opportunities".

The business agency was among several Northern Ireland public bodies that met with Richard Cook following the EU referendum, The Irish News last month revealed.

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.

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 has said Mr Cook was "treated the same as any other potential investor" and 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 – has questioned whether the DUP "was happy to take cash to obscure their involvement in the referendum".

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

Invest NI said nothing materialised from its engagements and there were no follow-up meetings.

Although Invest NI said no minutes were recorded, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request has uncovered some logs of its two meetings.

The documents include emails, such as correspondence in which Mr Cook is described as a "potential investor", and meeting details logged on an internal management system.

However, some of the information in the documents has been blanked out by Invest NI – including a section under the heading "meeting note".

Invest NI said the details have been redacted as they relate to "third party personal information" and would "constitute a breach of the Data Protection Principles", or that disclosure would likely "prejudice the commercial interests of any person".

Publishing the redacted details would "likely provide an unfair advantage" to competitors and "as such could result in financial loss", Invest NI said in its FOI response.

"Thus in Invest NI's opinion it is sustainable to argue that disclosure risks having a real and significant impact on the individual's commercial interests," it added.

Mr Cook was also involved in meetings with Belfast City Council (BCC) and the Department for Communities (DfC).

BCC said nothing came from these engagements. DfC said 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", but no deals have been made.

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