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  • Michelle Weir (Local Democracy Reporter)

Lively debate sees report into withdrawal of staff at Larne Port referred to Ombudsman

A report by the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) is to be forwarded to the public services ombudsman amid claims that an inquiry into the withdrawal of Mid and East Antrim Council staff from the Port of Larne, in February, had been “misled by MEA representatives”.

The report has said that it “considers that there was limited justification for suspending staff from undertaking checks and did not identify any evidence to indicate that this decision was proportionate to the full range of information available to DAERA and MEABC officials at the time in relation to the potential threats”.

The issue was highlighted at a meeting of the Borough Council on Monday evening by Bannside TUV Councillor Timothy Gaston who said he had asked when the item would be on the agenda for elected members to comment and debate.

He said he had been “denied an opportunity” at the previous monthly meeting to make any remarks after being “shut down in closed council”.

The AERA report had been on the agenda of open council at the August meeting but was moved behind closed doors.

Cllr Gaston said that his quotes from that session were not included in the minutes.

He went on to say that he “shares serious concerns regarding the suspicion that information was suppressed from the council investigation” alleging that the committee was “misled by MEA representatives”.

“There is reputational damage and brand damage being done to this council that needs addressed,” he stated.

“None of my comments have been noted or the concerns that I have,” he added.

Chief Executive Anne Donaghy said:

“There is very little that has not been minuted. There was nothing we could find that was said by Cllr Gaston that was not reflected.”

Cllr Gaston continued:

“I wish to recommend that we forward on the investigation to NIPSO to investigate the AERA report and the failings that have been highlighted .

“I have no confidence that this council during closed session last month was afforded the correct opportunity to scrutinise this, have a debate, to give comments. We have to be open and transparent to the ratepayers and I feel that due process has not been followed.

“My proposal is that based on the suspicion that information was suppressed from the committee investigation and that the committee was misled by MEA representatives and that brand and reputational damage has been caused to the corporate body that this report is referred to NIPSO.”

Cllr Gaston’s proposal was seconded by party colleague Bannside councillor Alderman Stewart McDonald who asked for a recorded vote.

Former Mid and East Antrim Mayor Knockagh DUP Councillor Peter Johnston said:

“I’m slightly disappointed by this. This has been well rehearsed. We have spoken about this how many times. It is quite clear Cllr Gaston wants to use this as a bit of a political point scoring exercise.

“He made the points at last month’s meeting. His point has been made. He has been heard. We had to take a very serious decision as a council. What is Cllr Gaston’s motive here?

“Is it just a bit of a dig. Is he really showing value for his ratepayers. Is this really the best use of ratepayers’ money?

“When it comes to the rate-setting process when he is trying to save a couple of quid by removing biscuits or cancelling magazines, he really needs to account for that. I certainly won’t be supporting this.”

Party colleague Larne Lough Councillor Gregg McKeen described the proposal “based on suspicion” as “diabolical” and accused Cllr Gaston of dancing to the “tune of Philip McGuigan”.

“Why do we think another waste of money investigation is going to find anything different?”

Cllr Gaston’s proposal was then carried by 17 councillors in favour and 16 against.

Sinn Fein Coast Road Cllr James McKeown quipped that he was “happy to vote” for his “comrade”.

Cllr Gaston continued:

“Cllr Johnston said this was going to cost the ratepayer. This is a public-funded body. Sorry to burst his bubble, this is something they do. It should come to no cost to the ratepayer. This is to open up transparency in this council. My goodness, it is greatly needed.”

Cllr Johnston remarked:

“I am well aware it is a public body. Our staff’s time is not free of charge but paid for by the ratepayer.

“We are now going to put our council through another inquiry. I think that is extremely disappointing and I hope it is remembered when it comes to the rate-setting process.”

In a statement issued after the meeting, Carrickfergus DUP Councillor John McDermott said:

“The Chief Executive of Mid and East Antrim has been working tirelessly to mitigate the worst aspects of the Protocol, while engaging with senior political leaders in Westminster to highlight the harm it has caused to businesses and ratepayers in the borough.

“You would think that Jim Allister and the TUV would welcome that leadership. Instead, they joined forces with Sinn Fein to vote through a fresh investigation into the Chief Executive’s conduct regarding the Protocol, and this after a last month’s Sinn Fein led DAERA investigation where the Chief Executive and then Mayor (Peter Johnston) were subjected to the most disgraceful interrogation by Sinn Fein, Alliance and SDLP.

“That aside, the recommendations of the DAERA inquiries were issued and adopted but this seems not to have been enough to please the TUV/Sinn Fein partnership.

“For all their bluff and bluster, the TUV are only too willing to work and vote with Sinn Fein when it suits their agenda.

“Though it is hard to comprehend what their agenda is in this case. Presumably they are not disagreeing with the Chief Executive highlighting the damage being done by the Protocol and the checks at Larne Port? If so, maybe Jim Allister can explain why his councillors joined with Sinn Fein in a new witch hunt designed to undermine the work of our Chief Executive in this regard?

“At a time when unionism should be uniting in its opposition to the Protocol, the TUV are preoccupied with joining Sinn Fein to launch meaningless investigations.”

Larne Lough Alliance Councillor Danny Donnelly also issued a statement saying:

“We supported the TUV call for an investigation into the appearance of council representatives at the AERA committee hearings earlier in the year. There is suspicion that the committee was misled.

“Alliance has been pushing for an independent investigation into the removal of staff at Larne Port for some time. We are glad to see the TUV move on this issue and join us in our bid for greater openness and transparency.”

Twelve environmental health officers employed by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council were temporarily withdrawn from duties at the Port of Larne on February 1.

Council officers have recommended that Mid and East Antrim notes the recommendations made by the AERA Committee in its report.

The Chief Executive has said that she is seeking legal advice for the findings of an inquiry by the AERA Committee.