Northern Ireland news

Council chief faces questions over DUP MP Ian Paisley's fundraising dinner

DUP MP Ian Paisley, and right, Mid and East Antrim council chief executive Anne Donaghy
Brendan Hughes

A COUNCIL chief executive faced questions yesterday over how the local authority came to pay for a table at DUP MP Ian Paisley's fundraising dinner.

Mid and East Antrim council convened a special meeting to discuss the controversy, for which Mr Paisley was last month fined £1,300 by the Electoral Commission.

The watchdog found that the dinner in 2017 was a fundraiser for the North Antrim MP's constituency activities.

Mid and East Antrim and Causeway Coast and Glens councils each paid £1,500 to attend the event in the Tullyglass hotel in Ballymena, which was addressed by senior Conservative Michael Gove.

As public bodies, councils are not permitted to donate to political parties.

The watchdog ruled that £1,300 of each payment was considered a political donation, with the remainder covering the cost of the meal.

In addition to the fine, Mr Paisley also agreed to pay back a total of £2,600 to the two councils.

Councillors have long maintained they were not properly informed of the DUP's role when Mid and East Antrim council chief executive Anne Donaghy first proposed attending the event in 2017.

At the time it was presented to councillors as a "major business in the community event", with Ms Donaghy saying it would be a "chance to shape forthcoming agriculture policies".

The Irish News later revealed how Ms Donaghy had been asked by Mr Paisley to send a £1,500 cheque to his constituency office made payable to the hotel.

TUV councillor Timothy Gaston, who had tabled a question to Ms Donaghy during Monday's full council meeting, called for greater transparency.

"From August 2017 to what we were told in the verbal report to what the Electoral Commission serious findings were is a day and night of a difference," he said.

"I asked the tabled question last night directly to the chief financial officer, and she is still maintaining Mr Paisley didn't mislead her and she didn't mislead the chamber – but something has happened between the report we got in August 2017 to the actual event.

"That is something that needs cleared up to get us more credible, more transparent, and more accountability."

Ms Donaghy said she was "more than happy to answer all of the questions" posed by councillors and agreed to respond in writing.

She strongly defended her record, saying there had been "a lot of misrepresentation" and "inaccuracies" voiced in the chamber.

"I do take offence and I totally refute some of things that have been said here today. I carry out this job with all of my energy and I do the best I can for this council," she said.

"When people are calling into question my integrity and in fact making allegations of my conduct I hold the right to come back on that.

"I stand by all that I do, and I do everything for this council that I can with honesty, with integrity and with a passion."

Alliance councillor Patricia O'Lynn alleged the meeting "only happened after repeated attempts by the council to block it".

"This meeting, brought by Alliance and backed by every other party on the council except the DUP, was an attempt to gain clarity and transparency for ratepayers across the borough," she said.

DUP mayor Peter Johnston, who chaired the meeting, denied obstructing its scheduling.

He branded it a "political point-scoring exercise" and said councillors could have sought alternatives such as holding a private meeting with council officials or submitting Freedom of Information requests.

The DUP's Gregg McKeen, the party's council group leader, hit out at Alliance for having a special sitting rather than discussing the matter during Monday's monthly meeting, branding it a waste of resources.

An Alliance proposal for measures including an Audit Office investigation was voted down.

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