Sinn Féin repays £30,000 given to ineligible NI offices in Covid-19 scheme

Party says grants ‘unsolicited’ but controversy has arisen over when money paid back

An unsolicited payment was made to the office of former Foyle MP Elisha McCallion, who is now a member of the Seanad. File photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

An unsolicited payment was made to the office of former Foyle MP Elisha McCallion, who is now a member of the Seanad. File photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

Sinn Féin has faced sharp political criticism over how it dealt with erroneous payments from a Stormont government department totalling £30,000 to three of its offices in Northern Ireland.

On Wednesday, the party confirmed that three offices each received £10,000 as part of the North’s Covid-19 small business support scheme from the NI Department for the Economy.

Sinn Féin said that the grants were “unsolicited” and have been repaid. The department also confirmed that Sinn Féin did not apply for the grants, adding that they were paid out in error.

However, SF has been criticised for taking months to repay the monies.SDLP leader Colum Eastwood – who posted a tweet of Fr Ted saying “that money was just resting in my account” – said it had “serious questions” to answer.

“It is galling that three Sinn Féin offices received a £10,000 support payment, and appear to have done very little about it until they were asked by the media,” he said.

Query

The grants were paid to the office of West Tyrone Assembly member Maolíosa McHugh and to the office of former Foyle MP Elisha McCallion, who is now a member of the Seanad. A SF office in Armagh received money, too.

“Three Sinn Féin offices received automatic and unsolicited payments of £10,000 under the Small Business Grant Scheme, ” said a SF spokesman.

“Sinn Féin offices did not qualify and did not apply for the scheme and the monies have been returned to the LPS [Land and Property Services],” he added.

Sinn Féin did not say when the repayments were made. Without mentioning SF, the economy department, however, said repayments were made over Monday and Tuesday, after the issue was aired on the BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show.

The programme reported that the Department for the Economy also made incorrect 52 payments worth £10,000 each to 52 ineligible wind turbine operators.

People already in receipt of small business rates relief automatically received grants under a March 2020 scheme . Payments were made where bank details were held by the North’s Land and Property Services for ratings purposes.

The automatic payments would have been paid out between late March and May. Fine Gael senator Regina Doherty queried why it took SF so long to repay the money.

“If Sinn Féin is the all-island party they claim to be, then it’s time they opened their books and were transparent with the people of Ireland,” said the former Cabinet minister.

In all, 452 payments worth £4.5 million, out of a total of 24,700, were made incorrectly. More than 70 have been paid back. “Work is under way to recover all ineligible payments,” said a department spokesman.