Mid and East Antrim Chief Executive Anne Donaghy has faced questions from councillors over her attendance at a so-called “DUP dinner”.
The event last Thursday evening was attended by Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Held at Tullyglass House Hotel, the dinner was billed as a “major Business in the Community event” when it was initially considered by the Mid and East Antrim Borough Council in August.
Members were told that the cost of the “seminar and round table discussion” could be found within the existing budget.
But at Monday night’s meeting of the local authority, questions were raised over the nature of the event after it emerged that it had been referred to as a “North Antrim DUP business dinner” by one attendee, Councillor John Finlay of Causeway Coast and Glens Council.
Among members’ concerns was the cost to the ratepayer of having council representatives at the evening, while some also questioned Mrs Donaghy’s “neutrality” in attending.
A DUP statement issued last week indicated that while the event was “an annual MP’s constituency dinner” hosted by Ian Paisley Jr, “it was not a DUP fundraising dinner”.
Speaking at the monthly council meeting in The Braid, Ballymena, MEA Mayor Cllr Paul Reid said the key focus of the event was the agri-food sector and the local farming community.
He added: “[Mr Gove] is currently developing the options for support for the farming community post-Brexit; it’s really important that the needs of the farming community are in his considerations.”
TUV councillor Timothy Gaston was among those calling for clarity on who hosted the event: “Was this a DUP dinner? Mr Finlay portrays it as a DUP dinner, [and] the DUP statement says Ian Paisley hosts an annual MPs’ constituency dinner; this is not something I have heard of before.”
Requesting that future invitations to council be viewable by all members, Cllr Gaston added: “My concern is around the transparency of this; how much did this council pay to attend the evening, and what did it say on the actual invite?”
Echoing the queries on expenditure, Cllr Patrice Hardy suggested that the Chief Executive should remain “neutral” over such invitations. “I believe that the majority of the people in this chamber who agreed to that event were not aware that it was a DUP dinner,” she said.
Meanwhile, the occasion was portrayed in the media as “an expressly party political event”, according to Declan O’Loan of the SDLP. He added: “I think fuller explanations are required.”
Responding to councillors’ queries, Mrs Donaghy reiterated that the event was “a North Antrim community and business dinner... hosted by the North Antrim MP.”
She said: “It provided council an opportunity to make contact with the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I would remind members that the agri-food sector accounts for one third of businesses here in Mid and East Antrim and we have over 2000 farms. I think it was my business as Chief Executive to have these conversations with him.”
Mrs Donaghy stated that the primary sponsor of the event was Belfast International Airport, a “strategic partner” of the council.
“I was there as the Chief Executive in a neutral position,” she said.
“It was also a key networking event where I and other council representatives had the opportunity to meet some of our food businesses in the area, including Moy Park and Glenarm Foods. These are key jobs in our area.”
Mrs Donaghy indicated that she had spoken to Mr Gove several times during the evening, adding: “I have agreed that I will prepare a paper on how Mid and East Antrim’s farming community and agri-food sector is going to be considered post-Brexit in terms of replacing things like the single farm payment.”
Expressing support for the Chief Executive’s comments, DUP Alderman Gregg McKeen said: “We should be trying to use our influence wherever we can to meet with the like of these Ministers, when you look at the situation going into Brexit and how we can look after the best interests of our local farming community in Mid and East Antrim. A high percentage of our jobs and income are in this area.”
TUV member Brian Collins, while stating that he “endorsed” the Chief Executive’s stance on the importance of agri-food issues, highlighted the need for a neutral forum for such an event. “Who is the North Antrim business community who hosted this dinner?” he asked. “Councillor Finlay said Michael Gove was ‘well received by the DUP’. This should have been a neutral environment to all parties; no parties should be showboating.
“I would like the Chief Executive to write to members and give them as much information as she can.”
Mrs Donaghy said she would undertake to provide more detail about invitations to council in future.
She added that she would write to all members on the other issues raised.