Northern Ireland news

DUP set up energy scheme meeting for Brexit donor

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

THE DUP arranged for a major donor to its Brexit campaign to meet Invest NI about developing a huge solar farm that would attract subsidies from an energy scheme.

Acting as a consultant, Richard Cook sought advice after the EU referendum on constructing a 100 megawatt solar farm in Northern Ireland.

It emerges after The Irish News revealed Mr Cook met with several public bodies at the DUP's request following the 2016 EU referendum to discuss "investment opportunities".

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.

Campaigners have been calling for an investigation into the donation, but the DUP has insisted donations were properly reported and Mr Cook was "treated the same as any other potential investor".

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

His meetings with Invest NI, Belfast City Council (BCC) and the Department for Communities (DfC) took place in August 2016 and February 2017.

Invest NI previously redacted some of its records in a Freedom of Information response, but following an Irish News challenge it has disclosed more details.

In July 2016, DUP policy director Lee Reynolds – who led the official Vote Leave campaign in Northern Ireland – emailed officials seeking a meeting for Mr Cook.

"He represents interests who wish to develop a 100MW solar farm in Northern Ireland," Mr Reynolds wrote.

The meeting with Invest NI took place the following month.

A log reads: "Meeting with Richard Cook (Glasgow-based consultancy) for advice and guidance on feasibility of 100MW ground-mounted solar PV farm. Issues: planning, grid connectivity and availability of ROC subsidy."

ROCs (Renewables Obligation Certificates) are part of a government scheme which legally obliges electricity supply companies to buy a proportion of their energy from renewable sources.

In the north, it operated as the Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation (Niro). It closed to new generating capacity in March 2017.

A 100MW solar farm is considered significant in size, with one renewables expert telling The Irish News that "with a system that size the owner would be dealing with an electricity supplier and any revenue calculation would be commercially sensitive".

With 1MW equating to 1,000 kilowatts (kw), for scale they compared it to a standard rooftop household system which would be "usually in the region of 3kw".

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

DfC said two officials met 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".

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.

Jolyon Maugham – director of the Good Law Project campaign group, which has been calling for an Electoral Commission investigation into the CRC donation – in April 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 DUP has previously 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.

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