Northern Ireland news

Invest NI 'did not pay' towards CEO attending Ian Paisley fundraising dinner

DUP MP Ian Paisley speaking to the media in December last year. Picture by Niall Carson/PA
Brendan Hughes

INVEST NI has said it did not pay for its then chief executive to attend a controversial fundraising dinner by DUP MP Ian Paisley.

Alastair Hamilton's attendance was "as a guest" and it was recorded on his gifts and hospitality register, the publicly-funded business development agency said.

Mr Paisley was last month fined £1,300 by the Electoral Commission for breaching donation rules by accepting payments from two councils to purchase tables at the 2017 event.

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

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

In addition to the fine, Mr Paisley also paid back a total of £2,600 to Mid and East Antrim and Causeway Coast and Glens councils.

On Tuesday, Mid and East Antrim council convened a special meeting to discuss how it became embroiled in the controversy.

DUP councillor Gregg McKeen said the event in the Tullyglass hotel in Ballymena, which was addressed by senior Conservative Michael Gove, was attended by various individuals including local business groups, charities and Invest NI.

According to Mr Hamilton's gifts and hospitality register, Mr Paisley's event was described as a "DUP agri-food dinner with Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs".

The hospitality was given an estimated value of £60.

Mr Hamilton stood down as Invest NI chief executive last year after a decade in the post.

Invest NI, which is part of Stormont's Department for the Economy, was asked whether it paid anything towards the event.

It was also asked whether they were aware at the time that it was a political fundraiser.

In a statement, an Invest NI spokeswoman said: "Invest NI did not pay anything towards attending this event. Our former CEO's attendance was as a guest and was logged in accordance with our hospitality and gifts register."

Councillors on Tuesday heard that the event had "free DUP merchandise sitting in the middle of the tables".

TUV councillor Timothy Gaston said the Audit Office had told him this, and its officials had questioned why this had "not set alarm bells ringing".

A Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) spokesman yesterday said this information related to "anecdotal commentary" about the event, and this aspect "has not been investigated or substantiated by the NIAO as our review focused on council procedures and approvals".

NIAO previously found that in paying for a table, Mid and East Antrim council had broken its own rules which had imposed a £500 spending limit on attending gala dinners or events.

In response, the council later relaxed its rules to remove the spending limit and also allow senior staff to decide on payments for future events involving officials without seeking councillors' approval.

NIAO said it "does not intend to examine this issue any further".

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