united-airlines-1THE Stormont Executive is in the dock tonight over why it claimed Brussels bureaucrats scuppered a £9 million support package to United Airlines.

The taxpayers money was used to help prop up UA’s transatlantic service from Belfast to New York.

But now European officials have DENIED making a ruling that scuppered a state-funded deal to rescue Northern Ireland’s only air link with the US.

So who did pull the plug? Was it United Airlines? Or was it the Executive?

On Monday, First Minister Arlene Foster had accused “Brussels bureaucracy” of thwarting the Executive’s £9 million support package for United Airlines to maintain its Belfast to Newark service.

Party colleague and Economy Minister Simon Hamilton levelled similar criticism against the European Commission, claiming its rules on state aid torpedoed the deal.

He said in a statement: “It is, therefore, very regrettable that unelected bureaucrats have effectively scuppered this important flight for Northern Ireland.”

So did another party colleague, Nelson McCausland, on his Facebook page on November 4 last week.

Commenting on a BBC news story on the bombshell news, the former Social Development Minister penned: “One of the key facts in this article is that, whatever the wisdom or otherwise of the grant aid, it was halted because of European Union rules about state aid.

“This is another example of EU dictatorship and another good reason why the voters of the United Kingdom were right to vote to leave the EU.

“So let’s get on with Brexit and break the shackles of the Brussels bureaucrats.”

Now it appears smoke and mirrors have been at play in this decision.

In a statement today, the European Commission said: “To be clear, the European Commission received a complaint alleging that the measure was in breach of EU rules, which it looked into, but we did not take any decision on the matter.

“The Northern Irish authorities and United Airlines have themselves decided to end their arrangement.”

United will stop the service in the January next year.

On Monday, Mrs Foster told the Assembly: “I think it was worth doing, I think it was the right thing to do at the time, but unfortunately the EU did not agree with us.

“They have decided that we cannot proceed with what they call state aid and because of that, United quickly took the decision, paid back any money that they had already received and they are now going to be leaving Belfast International Airport at the beginning of January.”

She added: “Of course, if we had not been in the EU, we would have been able to do it and that is the fundamental nub of this.

“I think if I were to look for a very practical expression of state aid bureaucracy, here it is.”

Ulster Unionist Assembly member Steve Aiken said the Executive needed to provide clarity “as a matter of urgency” on who decided the funding was inadmissible under EU rules.

“This is absolute dynamite,” he said.

“It now appears that the vital direct link to North America was pulled without a formal ruling being received from Brussels.

“Indeed, if a formal ruling had been received, we could probably have found ourselves in a much better position to marshal opposition to the unnamed complainant and maintain this vital strategic air link,” added the MLA.

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