Tensions high at council chamber in Ballymena as Ian Paisley dinner put in spotlight

Council headquarters - The Braid/Town Hall in Ballymena.

An Alliance Party proposal for the Northern Ireland Audit Office to carry out an investigation into the decision-making process by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council to attend a dinner hosted by North Antrim MP Ian Paisley was defeated at a meeting in Ballymena on Tuesday morning.

Alderman Gerardine Mulvenna (Allliance) had requested the meeting “in light of the Electoral Commission findings that a dinner attended by council officers and representatives in September 2017 was a party political fundraiser.”

Speaking after the meeting, she said that she also wanted to ensure that this “debacle does not happen again”.

Ald Mulvenna also stated that the Council had “failed to answer legitimate questions” but welcomed an undertaking by Chief Executive Anne Donaghy to provide answers, the Belfast Telegraph reports.

Alliance councillors said that they were “disappointed” by the vote which saw 18 votes against the proposal and eight abstentions with Sinn Fein and an Ulster Unionist saying they would like questions answered.

Chief Executive Anne Donaghy told the meeting that she would come back with answers to all the questions in writing.

Alliance is demanding to know how the invitations were made, who was invited and if the Council did not suspect it was a fundraiser and the party is now awaiting the Council chief’s responses.

The request for the meeting was supported by TUV, Ulster Unionist, Sinn Fein and SDLP councillors.

Last month, Mr Paisley was fined £1,300 for failing to return donations from “impermissible donors” within 30 days. The penalty must be paid by October 8.

The guest speaker at the dinner at Tullyglass Hotel in Ballymena, which was said to have been organised by North Antrim Business and Community Group, was Conservative MP Michael Gove.

Commenting on the Electoral Commission findings, the DUP said: “This event was not organised by the party but by Ian in his capacity as Member of Parliament for North Antrim and the associated donations were received on that basis.

“Mr Paisley co-operated fully with the investigation and, while acting in good faith, he accepts the outcome of the report.”

In a statement issued after the meeting, Alliance Cllr Patricia O’Lynn said: “Mid and East Antrim Borough Council “made repeated attempts to block councillors asking key questions regarding the Council’s appearance at a fundraising dinner for Ian Paisley MP.

Cllr O’Lynn also said DUP councillors had questions to answer, after voting against an Audit Office investigation and against reinstating a cap on the Council’s expenditure for corporate events.

She said that the meeting was an attempt to gain clarity and transparency for ratepayers across the borough.

“It only happened after repeated attempts by the Council to block it – from delaying tactics to changing the timing of the meeting, and from attempts to misdirect reasons for the meeting,” she claimed.

“We are extremely disappointed that rather than answer legitimate and key questions, the Council and DUP closed ranks, not allowing a full and open debate on behalf of the public, who rightly want to know the Council’s role in a political fundraiser.

“The message coming out of today’s meeting – and indeed this entire episode – is the DUP and Mid and East Antrim Council do not think openness and transparency is an important enough issue to debate.”

Meanwhile, DUP leader on council Cllr Gregg McKeen has claimed that today’s meeting will cost ratepayers around £5,000.

He stated: “This matter has been subject to extensive scrutiny, including Freedom of Information requests and much more.

“The Council’s actions were examined by the Audit Office who are satisfied and the matter is considered closed.”

More information regarding Tuesday’s meeting was reported by the ‘Ballymena Guardian’ as can be read below.

The paper reported that at Tuesday’s meeting after an Alliance bid to ask public questions of Chief Executive Anne Donaghy was refused under standing orders , Ballymena Alliance councillor Patricia O’Lynn then proposed a vote to set aside the rules.

But Mayor, Cllr. Peter Johnston (DUP), hit back saying that if that request was passed he would refuse to chair the meeting. Earlier he had referred to the meeting as ‘political point-scoring’.

And he added that in such circumstances he would ask council officers to step down from the meeting too.

Ms O’Lynn subsequently withdrew her proposal and the meeting moved on to discussion of a motion from her Alliance party colleague Gerardine Mulvenna which called for clarity on what had happened in relation to the dinner payment.

The motion also advocated that the Audit Office be asked to investigate how authorisation had been given for the money to be sent to Mr Paisley and proposed that the spending limit be reimposed.

Chief Executive Anne Donaghy told the meeting that she had not even seen the Electoral Commission’s report into the council’s donation to Mr Paisley.

She maintained she had not spoken to the commission and contended that councillors’ questions were wrongly directed to her.

Responding, Councillor Mulvenna said that the Council had been “brought into disrepute” due to the dinner.

With tensions rising in the chamber, Councillor O’Lynn said the Chief Executive should show respect to the members of the Council by “answering reasonable questions in full”.

Cllr. O’Lynn said that further denials that the Council had donated money to what amounted to a political fundraiser would be a farce.

She said that in 2017 the Chief Executive had placed Mr Paisley’s dinner on the agenda as an “agri-food business event” and that after the event when questions were asked the then Mayor Paul Reid (DUP) had “screamed down” those who questioned the event – which he attended.

She said alarm bells should have sounded when Mr Paisley requested that the money should be sent as a cheque to his constituency office. She argued it was “blatantly obvious” that this was a political event.

She asked Ms Donaghy if she was “so keen to attend this event that your judgement may have been clouded”.

Bannside TUV councillor Timothy Gaston alleged that there had been a long standing lack of transparency from the Council over the payment and the event.

Cllr. Gaston said that he had received more information from the Audit Office than from the Council chamber.

But he added that he did not intend to take any further action “at this stage,” however, he asked Ms Donaghy “to be honest with the chamber”.

Sinn Féin’s James McKeown focused his attention on the North Antrim MP who, he claimed had dropped the council “in it”.

Eugene Reid (SDLP) said there was a need for the questions to be answered “in an honest and transparent fashion”.

But the DUP’s Greg McKeen said that Ian Paisley had run the event in good faith. He added that no other cabinet ministers had been available to Council in such a way before.

He said this was “very positive” before calling for a line to be drawn under the matter.

Addressing the meeting, Anne Donaghy said there had been a “lot of misrepresentation spoken in the chamber”.

She stressed she would answer all the questions later “in writing”.

She said: “I totally refute some of the 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.

“I have to say 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”.

She said that “honesty, integrity and passion”were central to her role as Chief Executive.

The Alliance motion was defeated 18-7. Seven councillors abstained with several saying they were taking this position until they could get answers from Council officials.

Meanwhile, the agenda for the meeting shows DUP councillor Gregg McKeen tabled a question at Tuesday’s meeting which said: ‘Could the Chief Executive provide the cost of holding the Special Council Meeting and the amount of Officer time spent dealing with this request?’

The response was listed on the Council website as follows: ‘In advance of the reintroduction of Committee meetings in August 2020 Group Party Leaders were informed at their meeting on 21 July 2020 that the cost of holding a meeting of Full council was £4,373.24.

‘As the Special Council meeting is being held on the morning of the 6 October following a Full
Council meeting on the evening of 5 October, this will incur additional costs due to tight
turnaround timeframes and venue preparation.

‘The Council Chamber and venue communal areas will require a full deep cleanse outside of normal operating hours to ensure COVID-19 safety compliance and additional support arrangements put in place, increasing the cost of holding the Special Council meeting to £5,073.24.

‘Other additional costs that are unaccounted for is the significant time commitment of Council’s Senior Management (excess of 20 hours) and Administrative staff (excess of 15 hours) in facilitating the Special Council meeting.

‘Senior Management time commitment has had to be diverted from managing Council’s emergency response and recovery plans at this critical time in order to deliver the Special Council meeting.’

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