Blog: Brexit: Mid and East Antrim council referring itself to watchdog after claims of ‘misleading’ Stormont inquiry – Belfast Live

A council is referring itself to a public services watchdog after being accused of misleading a Stormont inquiry examining the withdrawal of port staff conducting Brexit checks.

By a single-vote majority, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council backed a TUV call for the Assembly committee report to be referred to the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman.

The motion sought the referral “based on the suspicion that information was suppressed from the committee investigation” and claims that MLAs were “misled” by council representatives.

It also made the proposal on the basis that “brand and reputational damage” had been caused to the council.

Stormont’s agriculture committee had examined the contentious decision by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots and the council to temporarily remove staff in February from Larne and Belfast ports.

The withdrawal followed security fears over threatening graffiti but questions mounted when police said there was no evidence of “credible threats” or the involvement of loyalist paramilitaries.

The agriculture committee’s report found the decision to remove staff was disproportionate and “undoubtedly contributed to escalating tensions” over Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

It also raised concerns over the “quality and credibility” of some of the council’s evidence due to “several contradictions and inconsistencies”.

The report identified “several issues” with a divisive letter council chief executive Anne Donaghy sent to the UK government on the advice of three DUP MPs.

Anne Donaghy, chief executive of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council

The committee disagreed with Ms Donaghy’s assertion that it was “not relevant” to their inquiry and said it was a “misjudgement not to have disclosed the correspondence” when the council first gave evidence.

MLAs also said they could “not identify a reasonable justification” for why the letter was shared with numerous DUP elected representatives but not other parties.

TUV councillor Timothy Gaston introduced his motion calling for the referral to Nipso in a dramatic surprise intervention during Monday’s council meeting.

The proposal passed by 17 votes to 16, with the DUP opposed and members of other parties voting in favour.

TUV councillor Timothy Gaston

Ms Donaghy excused herself from the council chamber during the vote after declaring an interest.

Mr Gaston said he had “no confidence” councillors would have a proper opportunity to scrutinise the report after it was discussed last month behind closed doors.

He added: “I feel that due process hasn’t been followed and as an elected member I feel that I haven’t been given the opportunity to raise my concerns.”

The councillor said: “This is to open up transparency in this council – and my goodness, it’s greatly needed.”

The DUP criticised the referral, claiming it was a waste of public resources.

Former DUP mayor Peter Johnston accused Mr Gaston of “political point-scoring”, while the party’s group leader Gregg McKeen branded his TUV rival a “puppet of Sinn Féin”.

Alliance councillor Danny Donnelly said his party backed the TUV proposal, welcoming the “bid for greater openness and transparency”.

“Alliance has been pushing for an independent investigation into the removal of staff at Larne Port since February,” he added.

The council has previously said the temporary withdrawal of staff from Larne Port was a “unanimous, cross-party decision taken by council, with the health, safety and wellbeing of council staff the priority”.

It had also insisted Ms Donaghy’s correspondence with the UK government was “not political in nature” and was shared with the relevant public office holders “regardless of their political party or persuasion”.

A council spokesman said: “Following a vote by elected members of 17 to 16, council will now fully engage with Nipso proceedings as required.”

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