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Tuesday 19 November 2019

Robinsons face fresh scrutiny of finances

Shamed MLA Iris lobbied on behalf of developer's project


IRIS Robinson once asked a question -- answered by her husband Peter, who was the regional development minister in Northern Ireland at the time -- in Stormont about a shopping centre development controlled by a consortium linked to the purchaser of her constituency office last year for £207,500 (€234,593).

Mrs Robinson also made several public statements supporting the development of the proposed Castlebawn Shopping Centre in Newtownards, Co Down, on behalf of developer Adam Armstrong who left the North two years ago and is now resident in Gibraltar.

The North's beleaguered First Minister and his wife now face further scrutiny over financial transactions concerning the sale and purchase of the constituency office in Newtownards. The SDLP MP for Belfast South, Alastair McDonnell, is to raise the issue of transactions concerning the office with the Standards and Privileges Committee at Westminster. He said he did not wish to prejudge the outcome but said that "the public are angry and they want answers".

British Land Registry documents, revealed in the Belfast's Irish News last Thursday appear to show that the DUP Advice Centre on North Street in Newtownards was transferred to the Robinsons "in consideration of the sum of £1" in August 2007.

The same building had previously been owned by a company run by Ken Campbell, one of the two property developers who loaned Irish Robinson £25,000 (€28,264) to help the then 19-year-old Kirk McCambley start up in business at the Castlereagh Borough Council-owned Lock Keeper's Inn restaurant in south Belfast.

Registry records show that the DUP advice centre building was bought in July 2006 for £195,000 (€220,461).

A spokesman for Mr Campbell was quoted last week as saying: "Mr and Mrs Robinson paid the full purchase price, stamp duty and all legal fees." It was said that the Land Registry record of a consideration of one pound "reflects the conclusion of a trust arrangement".

The property was sold by the Robinsons to a pension trust, R&A Pension Fund, linked to the other developer, Adam Armstrong in early 2009 for £207,500.

Mr Armstrong is behind the proposed £250m (€282.6m) shopping centre in Newtownards which has been subject to planning problems for almost nine years.

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Mrs Robinson has made repeated parliamentary statements supporting the scheme. In March 2002, Mrs Robinson -- the then MLA for the Strangford area which covers Newtownards -- asked husband Peter, in his ministerial role, in the Assembly at Stormont to "detail any progress made in resolving the outstanding issues relation to the Castlebawn development in Newtownards".

Mr Robinson replied that he was pleased to report "that progress is being made towards bringing about a satisfactory conclusion to the outline planning applications by Castlebawn Limited for its proposed development in Newtownards."

Mrs Robinson, who has resigned from both Westminster and Stormont, and her husband are now under scrutiny over the Lock Keeper's Inn transactions in which Iris acquired "loans" totalling £50,000 (€56,528) from developers Ken Campbell and Freddie Frazer to help Mr McCambley start up his business.

Another separate inquiry is under way at Castlereagh Borough Council, a DUP stronghold, over Mrs Robinson's role in acquiring the lease to run the restaurant on behalf of Mr McCambley from the council.

Independent auditors have been brought in to examine her role and the role of others in the council in the issuing of the licence to run the restaurant to the then 19-year-old chef ahead of other applicants. Castlereagh Borough Council, a predominantly Protestant area in the south-eastern suburbs of Belfast, has been a DUP stronghold since the 1970s and is the Robinson's power base.

There are 11 DUP members on the 22-member council and the party has held a majority there for the best part of 30 years. The council was one of the most active local authorities in the North engaged in rezoning land from agricultural and amenity use for residential and commercial developments. The biggest single beneficiary of this was Mr Frazer, who gave half the McCambley money to Iris Robinson and who died last year. Mr Frazer had bought up swathes of green-field land in the Castlereagh area which had been zoned "green belt" and on which development had previously been banned.

The Robinson's themselves have bought land and are seeking permission to build an 8,000sq ft house in the south of Belfast.

The couple also owns a holiday home near Orlando in Florida, bought in 2006 for $600,000 but which is now worth considerably less.

Sunday Independent

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