Northern Ireland news

Stormont department withholds details relating to DUP Brexit donor meetings

Constitutional Research Council chairman Richard Cook is a former vice chairman of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party
Brendan Hughes

A STORMONT department has refused to disclose details about a business expressing interest in a development site following meetings with a DUP Brexit campaign donor.

The Department for Communities (DfC) was among several Northern Ireland public bodies which met with Richard Cook at the DUP's request to discuss "investment opportunities" 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.

There have been calls for an Electoral Commission investigation into the CRC donation, but the DUP has said the donations were properly reported and Mr Cook was "treated the same as any other potential investor".

The meetings involving Mr Cook with Invest NI, Belfast City Council (BCC) and DfC took place in August 2016 and February 2017, and were to discuss "potential investment opportunities in Northern Ireland".

DfC previously said two officials met with Mr Cook in February 2017 about "potential development sites in Belfast city centre including Queen's Quay".

It said "no further action" was taken, but an 'expression of interest' about Queen's Quay was later submitted by HCI Holdings Limited which "indicated that Richard Cook was to be the preferred point of contact".

In a Freedom of Information (FOI) response to The Irish News, DfC said no minutes or notes were taken by officials of the 2017 meeting and there were no further meetings.

But the department said it was withholding correspondence relating to the 'expression of interest', arguing that it is exempt from disclosure as it was "information provided in confidence".

It comes after Invest NI redacted some logs in relation to its meetings with Mr Cook.

No minutes were recorded, but an FOI uncovered emails and meeting details logged on an internal management system.

Some of the information was blanked out by Invest NI – including a section under the heading "meeting note".

Invest NI said the details were redacted as they relate to "third party personal information" or disclosure would likely "prejudice the commercial interests of any person".

Both Invest NI and BCC have previously said nothing materialised from their engagements with Mr Cook.

The DUP has 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".

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