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Concerns raised over 'irregularities' in £6m aid package to United Airlines

United Airlines will receive £6m over three years

ARLENE Foster and Martin McGuinness signed off a multi-million pound aid package to one of the world's biggest airlines despite concern about "irregularities" and value for money.

In August, the first minister and deputy first minister used "emergency procedure" to rubber stamp the subsidy to United Airlines after the US carrier threatened to pull the plug on the north's only transatlantic air link.

The £6m aid package was sanctioned by Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness, rather than the entire Stormont executive.

The north's auditor general Kieran Donnelly told Stormont's public accounts committee earlier this week that there were "question marks" around the aid and the package was "unlikely to be approved on conventional grounds".

He said it was granted under so-called ministerial direction because the Department for the Economy (DfE) permanent secretary would not authorise the subsidy on the grounds that it was irregular and did not represent value for money.

At the same meeting it emerged that United refused a request for DfE officials to monitor the effectiveness of the subsidy, while there is also a possibility that the European Commission will scrutinise the package to see if it complies with state aid rules.

The public accounts committee agreed to write to the Executive Office to establish "the political rationale" for agreeing the aid.

During the committee meeting, Sinn Féin's Declan Kearney raised concerns about the package, even though his party backed it less than a month ago.

"It is for me a very irregular scenario to award the funding, but to award the funding where the recipient is refusing what I would consider just sensible, transparent monitoring conditions," the South Antrim MLA said.

Last month Sinn Féin told The Irish News that it supported the massive bailout because "its loss would have had a negative impact on job creation through inward investment and tourism".

Alliance committee member Trevor Lunn described the decision to approve the aid as "madness".

"For the department to consent to giving millions of pounds to United Airlines each year in the absence of any detailed business case is breathtaking, particularly when it appears to have disregarded the concerns of the permanent secretary," the Lagan Valley MLA said.

"There remains no guarantee United will even stay beyond those three years. The executive has effectively promised this money without any proper scrutiny in place and questions need asked."

When details of the aid package emerged last month, Green MLA Steven Agnew accused the executive of "propping-up a vanity project".

Mr Agnew claimed precious financial resources were being used to subsidise an unviable route while numerous transatlantic flights left Dublin every day.

However, Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness have defended the move, with the DUP leader saying she took on board all that was said before making the decision.

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