N Ireland chief robustly defends decision to send Brexit letter to Cabinet Office

By Ann McGauran | 07 May 2021

The chief executive of Mid and East Antrim BC has robustly defended her decision to send a controversial letter on Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Cabinet Office.

In it Anne Donaghy set out her concerns about the security of staff at Larne port and the appearance of ‘sinister graffiti’, governance arrangements for entry checks and charging, and long term funding of council staff.

She said in the letter sent at the end of January that she had been advised to write to the Cabinet Office with her concerns by ‘my local MPs’ – all of whom are members of the DUP. Only two are MPs for Mid and East Antrim.

Speaking at a Stormont committee about whether she had consulted with the DUP-controlled council before sending the letter, Ms Donaghy said: ‘I had a generic permission [from the council] to continue to correspond with the government departments in relation to the implementation of the [NI] protocol.’

She added: ‘It’s a reserved matter, therefore the lead government department is the Cabinet Office. So I already had that permission [to send the letter] and my council were well versed in that.’

The committee has been examining the decision by the council to temporarily withdraw staff from the port on February 1.

Mayor of Mid and East Antrim BC Cllr Peter Johnson told the committee that the letter was ‘sent confidentially from one official to another’, and did not form part of the evidence considered by the council when decisions were made on whether staff should be withdrawn from the port.

The letter was ratified by full council earlier this week, said Cllr Johnson.

Ms Donaghy is chair of the Solace Northern Ireland EU Exit Task and Finish Working Group, which involves staff from each of Northern Ireland’s 11 councils.

She had come under criticism for saying at an earlier hearing of the committee that she had written the letter in her role as a national senior representative of Solace.

But when the letter was leaked it was written on council headed paper and does not clearly mention Solace.

Earlier this week the chief executive of Belfast City Council Suzanne Wylie and chief executive of Newry, Mourne and Down Council Marie Ward told the committee they had no knowledge of the letter to the Cabinet Office.

But speaking at yesterday’s session, Ms Donaghy said that following two meetings in January, ‘both the Solace local government liaison officer and I were confident that we had the full support of Solace to continue to raise the concerns of local government with the lead government department with responsibility and oversight – that is the permanent secretaries and the Cabinet Office as a non-devolved department.’

In a statement last week, Solace NI said: ‘The letter referred to was written by Anne Donaghy as chief executive of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council.’

It added: ‘Other Solace members did not see this correspondence prior to its issue.’

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