Eamonn McCann: Public pressure forces Sinn Féin U-turn on Stormont expenses
Unionist and Nationalist MLAs had stood shoulder-to-shoulder until engulfed in public disapproval
Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness walks with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and party colleagues Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill outside Stormont. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
The PSNI announced on Tuesday it was calling off its investigation into allegations of irregularities in some MLAs’ expenses claims. Det Supt Kevin Geddes said no potentially criminal issues had been referred to the police by the Stormont authorities. “Given the increasing demands on our reduced resources, unless new information is forthcoming . . . there will be no further police action.”
The issue goes back to a BBC NI Spotlight programme in November 2014 in which reporter Mandy McAuley revealed that over the previous decade, Sinn Féin MLAs had claimed £700,000 for research said to have been necessary for them to do their jobs. The money had been paid to Research Services Ireland (RSI), a company based in offices on Springfield Road in west Belfast rented from Clonard Residents’ Association. The chairman of the residents’ body is Seán “Spike” Murray, a key Belfast Sinn Féin leader.
Spotlight found no evidence of research having been carried out by RSI. It said RSI was “run by Séamus Drumm and Sinéad Walsh, who are in charge of SF’s finance department in Northern Ireland”.
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The review panel believed it had no option but to write off the taxpayers’ money paid out to RSI prior to the panel’s ruling. But even after the outlawing of payments to “companies like RSI”, further payments were made to the company to the tune of £150,000.
Spotlight revealed, too, that sizeable sums had been paid to Sinn Féin MLAs for rent of premises from apparently non-existent cultural organisations. As well, around £5,000 had been paid to a now former MLA for car expenses. The former MLA said he had never heard of the company until interviewed by McAuley, had made no such claim and, anyway, didn’t drive.
SF was also accused by Spotlight of claiming payments for rent said to have been paid to cultural organisations for the existence of which, again, the programme could find no evidence. The DUP, too, was accused of questionable conduct, with some MLAs allegedly vastly overclaiming for rent for constituency offices – the rent paid in some cases to party associates.
The parties involved have vehemently denied any wrongdoing, citing the authority of another body, the “internal” NI Assembly Commission, which declared a fortnight ago that it had reviewed the facts and found nothing amiss. The commission has one representative from each of the five main parties: DUP, SF, the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance.
“The review confirmed that payments for research services . . . were made for admissible expenditure up to and including the 2012/2013 financial year. As such, no recovery has been sought. No payments to Research Services Ireland for work undertaken after December 31st, 2012, have been made.”
Thus, even though £150,000 had been handed to RSI after the financial review panel had ruled such payments had been wrong from the outset, the parties resolved that, because the services had supposedly been supplied to SF prior to the review panel’s determination, no problem arose.
The Assembly’s response to the claims contrasted with the routine treatment of, for example, welfare recipients found to have overclaimed, who are invariably named and shamed and made to pay the money back. It contrasted, too, with requirements for community and voluntary organisations, which have to specify in detail what any public money claimed is to be used for and afterwards to produce receipts and accounts to show that it has been used for this specified purpose.
Nothing to be done, then.
When Pat McCartan’s intervention was raised in the Assembly on Monday last week, the first MLA on his feet to decry the panel’s strictures on SF was Peter Weir of the DUP. On the following day, as reaction from grassroots and the media rumbled on, all of the parties announced they had changed their minds and would now institute a tougher scrutiny regime, modelled on Westminster practice.
Unionist and nationalist MLAs had stood shoulder-to-shoulder until engulfed in public disapproval. Some have since accused their critics of putting the Stormont institutions at risk.
The old refrain: “Don’t hit me now, I’m holding the peace process.”