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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 December 2007, 17:21 GMT
Paisley 'lobbied for land deal'
By Martina Purdy
Political correspondent

Ian Paisley Jnr
Ian Paisley Jnr said he was lobbying in the interests of his constituents
It has emerged Ian Paisley Jnr has been lobbying an executive colleague in a multi-million pound land deal involving among others developer Seymour Sweeney.

Mr Paisley Jnr's relationship with Mr Sweeney has been in the spotlight after the developer's bid to build the Giant's Causeway's visitor's centre.

Mr Paisley Jnr said he had acted properly throughout the matter.

However, a former parliamentary watchdog said he had a duty to set out his exact interests in it.

Mr Paisley jnr said that his lobbying had been in the best interests of the public purse and of his constituents who are hoping to buy back land taken over by government more than 30 years ago.

In March of this year, direct rule minister David Hanson had been wrestling with a decision about 96 acres at Ballee in Ballymena.

The land was acquired by the Government through compulsory purchase in 1970 but never developed. The Department of Social Development had decided to put it up for auction in 2003.

But some of the original owners and their relations objected to an auction. They wanted a first refusal and were prepared to take a court case to establish their rights.

Backing their bid was a group of businessmen. They hoped to buy the land and offered to finance the deal on behalf of the families and pay them 10% on top of the price they had to pay the government.

Details of the deal were earlier disclosed in legal papers.

Ian Paisley Jnr said he first became involved in 2003 when he was contacted by two of the nine families who originally owned the land.

"I said of course I was more than willing to help them and help them both for their interest, as they are entitled for their rights to be observed, and also for the public interest because it is in the public interest to ensure the proper value is established and paid for these lands," he said.

North coast businessman Seymour Sweeney was one of the developers who wanted to secure the Ballee land.

When asked by the BBC which businessmen he had been in contact with him, Mr Paisley Jnr said: "Well I've already told you.

"There's a number of businessmen contacted me. There's six businessmen involved in this case. At some point I have been in touch or spoken to the majority of those businessmen."

He was then asked if Mr Sweeney was one of them.

"Well as I have said there are six businessmen involved in this and I have certainly at some point been involved with the constituents happy to represent their case with the full knowledge that all these businessmen are involved in this case with the constituents.

"That is principally their concern. They are entitlted to that relationship."

Seymour Sweeney
Seymour Sweeney is also a member of the DUP

He was then pressed on whether he had spoken to Mr Sweeney about the matter.

"Well if Mr Sweeney contacted me of course I did," he replied.

He added: "I've spoken to six. There are six businessmen involved in this.

"I have spoken to the majority of those businessmen throughout this case. There's no secret in that and those businessmen have acted as a unit in this case and acted on behalf of their business clients who happen to be my constituents."

Last December, Mr Paisley Jnr approached the minister, David Hanson, urging a settlement on Ballee.

I take my responsiblities as an MLA very seriously. I have responsiblities to my constituents. I will serve their needs
Ian Paisley Jnr

In January - against a background of rising house and land prices - the department rejected an offer of 9m from the families.

It thought the land was worth more and had it revalued at nearly 37m. At this point a senior civil servant's note says that Mr Paisley Jnr offered to drop the families' court case if the government was prepared to sell them the land at the new price.

However, when he was asked about this the DUP man said: "No once again I must correct you. It was not my job at any time to offer to drop the legal case.

"It was my job to indicate certainly what was being said by the families and saying 'look they are prepared to settle this case, don't let it run. Don't lets have protracted legal costs on all this'."

In February this year the group of developers backing the bid changed, but Seymour Sweeney was still involved.

By March, the judicial review was looming. And Mr Paisley Jnr again spoke to an official about a possible settlement. He also complained the department was moving "very slowly." Ahead of the court hearing the families made another offer to the government - this time for 50m.

The court allowed the department time to consider the offer.

Mr Hanson authorised formal negotiations to settle; efforts to do that became complicated though, because not all original owners had been identified and the department did not want a piecemeal deal.

By this time the department had had the land revalued again and put a new price on it of 75m. There was no deal.

"Lets be clear about this, when the department asked me could I get them the 37m, I did," Mr Paisley Jnr said.

"They then turned that down and said could you get us 50m. I did. And they then turned that down.

"When they then started to take the mickey on this 'we want 75m we want 100m', there is no way my constituents were going to be ridden over in that way and I supported their interests."

Sir Alistair Graham
Sir Alistair Graham said Mr Paisley jnr should lay out his exact interests in the matter

With the return of devolution, David Hanson was replaced by the SDLP's Margaret Ritchie as minister for social development and Ian Paisley Jnr became a junior minister.

Within weeks he was again in contact with the DSD minister over Ballee. He said he did this in his role as an MLA for North Antrim not as a minister. He accused the department of presenting an "extortionate" new valuation.

Mr Paisley Jnr was asked if, at one stage, the families were offered 10% of the sale price for the land - while no one has disclosed the exact details, if that was still the case surely it would suit their interests for the price to go up?

"I have no idea in terms of the business agreement that is in place between my constituents and their business partners," he said.

"You have mentioned percentages. So I'm not privy to any of that, don't want to be privy to any of that.

"That is their business relationship. I am there to represent the needs first of all of my constituents and to ensure also that the public purse is satisfied in this particular case.

Faced by the risk of losing the court case, the department agreed the deal in principle at a 50m price soon afterwards.

Mr Paisley Jnr said that, throughout, he was representing his constituents, not Seymour Sweeney or any of the other developers

However, Sir Alistair Graham, former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said Mr Paisley Jnr would have been wise to hand the issue over to a party colleague once he took ministerial office.

There are a whole range of issues where he needs to be totally transparent of what his links and interests are with this man
Sir Alistair Graham

"We are dealing with a property deal in which the public purse may gain many, many millions of pounds," he said.

"And of course it is important that we maximise the amount of money to the public purse if public assets are being put up for sale.

"And therefore I think there is a heavy duty on the junior minister to lay out his exact interests in this matter. For example, I understand a key player in all of this is a fellow member of the DUP (Mr Sweeney). The same political party.

"Therefore that should be absolutely clear, what contacts there has been. Is there any obligation in any way to this businessman. Has he for example had any property deals with this businessman.

"There are a whole range of issues where he needs to be totally transparent of what his links and interests are with this man. And if he doesn't make those interests clear then he is in danger of being accused of acting improperly."

Mr Paisley Jnr is adamant that it was clear he was writing to Margaret Ritchie in his capacity as an MLA rather than as a junior minister.

"I take my responsiblities as an MLA very seriously. I have responsiblities to my constituents. I will serve their needs," he said.

"That's why I am here and there has been no clash and no conflict with anything that I have ever had to do as a minister in all of this matter."

The deal is still being finalised and may be concluded shortly. The millions involved would certainly help the cash-strapped department facing a housing crisis.

They may also though raise more questions.



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