Dark Hedges group probed over donations
A DARK Hedges preservation group headed by a DUP assembly member is being examined by the Charity Commission over its online donations.
The Dark Hedges Preservation Trust (DHPT) is aimed at protecting the tree-lined avenue in Co Antrim made famous by TV fantasy drama Game of Thrones.
The group is chaired by DUP North Antrim MLA and former executive minister Mervyn Storey.
A complaint has been made over concerns that DHPT appeared to seek donations as a charity even though it is not registered as one.
The preservation trust had applied to the watchdog for formal charity status some years ago, but was refused.
However, a Facebook page promoting the Dark Hedges has been encouraging people to donate to DHPT via an online donations site.
The Local Giving page says DHPT will "preserve, enhance and promote the Dark Hedges for future generations".
It includes a box saying, "charity information – Dark Hedges Preservation Trust", although the phone number provided is for a registered charity called the Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust.
Photographer and Dark Hedges campaigner Bob McCallion told The Irish News he made a complaint to the charity watchdog.
He asked: "How can a charity that has been refused registration be asking for donations? How are they able to, albeit through a host charity?"
To be recognised as a charity, a group must meet criteria including that it has exclusively charitable purposes for the public benefit.
An organisation refused charity status can still operate and raise money, but cannot represent itself to the public as a charity.
The Charity Commission said DHPT applied to register as a charity in 2014 but "following extensive legal consideration" was refused last year "because the applicant had not satisfied the legal requirements".
A spokeswoman added: "I can confirm that the commission has received a concern in relation to the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust. The commission is currently assessing this concern.
"As a proportionate regulator, and so as to ensure that any current or potential investigation is fair, the commission will not be making any further comment at this time."
The DUP's Mervyn Storey said: "The Dark Hedges Preservation Trust had a service-level agreement with the Causeway Cost and Glens Heritage Trust, which has now ceased.
"The Preservation Trust will be cooperate fully with any investigation carried out by the Charity Commission."
The Dark Hedges are among the most photographed natural landmarks in Ireland, with many tourists visiting after they featured in Game of Thrones.
It has led to fears that the ancient trees could be at risk from the increased traffic and footfall.
Stormont's Department for Infrastructure is considering whether to ban vehicles from Bregagh Road to help protect the trees.