Backroom people in the world of politics usually prefer to stay out of the news, and that’s presumably where republican and Sinn Féin activist Des Mackin (67) would much rather be.
However, events are conspiring against the long-time Sinn Féin director of finance as political opponents target the party’s financial affairs and Mackin finds himself being put under the spotlight about his own private conduct as a landlord.
A report by The Ditch website during the week drew attention to Mackin’s ownership of a number of rented properties in Co Louth, including one on Bridge Street, Dundalk, where an application for retrospective planning permission was refused in 2019 on the grounds that an apartment was “wholly substandard”.
Mackin had sought retention permission for the unauthorised change of use of the ground floor of a three-storey building (the upper floors were already in apartments) from a language school to a one-bedroom apartment. The application was rejected by the council on the basis that the unauthorised apartment was “wholly substandard having regard to lack of sufficient access to natural light, lack of privacy, lack of ventilation, substandard room sizes and room widths, lack of private amenity area, and lack of storage”.
The council inspector noted that as well as having poor natural light, the ground floor apartment allowed passing pedestrians to look straight into the living area. “The existing resident has combated this by keeping the blinds permanently shut where they look on to Bridge Street.”
It is an unwelcome embarrassment for a member of the coiste seasta, the eight-member Sinn Féin standing committee that is responsible for the day-to-day running of the party and which some former insiders say is the key structure within Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin is deliberately structured to ensure that party activists such as Mackin maintain a hold on the party, as against having power located in the ranks of its elected representatives
“All national departments are accountable to the ardchomhairle through the Coiste Seasta,” says a note on party structure that accompanies Sinn Féin’s latest financial accounts. The ardchomhairle, which the accounts say had 60 members at the end of 2021, including Mackin, is the ultimate ruling body in Sinn Féin.
However, it is an unwieldy decision-making structure by comparison with the coiste seasta, a much smaller and arguably more influential standing committee, the bulk of whose members are unelected male party officers.
Sinn Féin is deliberately structured to ensure that party activists such as Mackin maintain a hold on the party, rather than having power located in the ranks of its elected representatives like most political parties. Senior figures fear that letting elected politicians have too much of a say could dilute the party’s core mission of achieving a united Ireland, something they believe happened with Official Sinn Féin which, over the years, morphed and split into the Workers Party and then Democratic Left, before merging with the Labour Party.
Mackin has many of the attributes of a typical unelected Sinn Féin party activist, but he is unusual in that so much of his political and private career is associated with money. He was for many years Sinn Féin’s joint treasurer along with the late Joe Cahill, a veteran republican and IRA member. They were Sinn Féin’s joint treasurers in the 1990s when an eccentric Englishman called William Hampton named them in a will he drafted while living in a caravan in Cootehill, Co Cavan. The treatment of this bequest forms one of at least two complaints about Sinn Féin’s finances that have been made to the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) in recent times.
Hampton left the bulk of his estate to “the political party in the Republic of Ireland known at this time as Sinn Féin”, but when Mackin took control of the estate after Hampton died in 2018 – by which time Cahill was also deceased – he began passing the money on to Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland.
Mackin has since delivered millions of euro to the party’s coffers in Belfast. The law on political donations in the Republic prohibits political donations from outside the State and limits domestic donations to €2,500 for any one donor in any one year. Such restrictions do not apply in Northern Ireland. Since 2018 Mackin, as executor, has been collecting money from Hampton bank accounts in a number of jurisdictions, and liquidating assets, and transferring the money to Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland.
The UK Electoral Commission website shows £3.1 million (€3.5 million) was transferred between April 2019 and August 2022, in a series of large, round-figure transactions. The process is believed to be ongoing and expected to reach a final tally in the region of £3.5 million. A complaint to Sipo about Sinn Féin’s receipt of the bequest is based on the view that the money was left to Sinn Féin in Dublin and, as such, should not have been accepted.
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Mackin’s workload as Sinn Féin’s finance director is being added to by a fresh complaint to Sipo about allegedly significant discrepancies in the accounts and statutory statements filed by the party in recent years. The complaint has been made by a financial analyst and Fine Gael supporter and involves serious allegations such as an apparent gap of approximately €100,000 between what the party declared for its election expenditure in 2019 in its audited accounts for that year, and the election expenditure returns for the same year.
The complaint also points to alleged discrepancies between the audited accounts filed by the party north and south of the Border. The party uses the same auditor, Kinsella Mitchell & Associates, of Prussia Street, Dublin 7, for the accounts it files in both jurisdictions (the same firm audited the accounts of many of the private businesses Mackin has been associated with over the years).
Mackin joined the IRA at a young age and in 1972 was sentenced to five years in Long Kesh for membership of a proscribed organisation
Sinn Féin is disputing the seriousness of the apparent discrepancies, but it does not look good in the wake of the verbal attacks Mary Lou McDonald and other Sinn Féin TDs made in the Dáil against Fine Gael’s Paschal Donohoe over his non-declaration of support in the putting up of election posters, work that was valued at a few thousand euro.
In his filings to the Companies Registration Office over the years in relation to his business ventures, Mackin has given a home address in Ravensdale, Dundalk, Co Louth. However, in the 2019 grant of probate in relation to the Hampton estate, his address was an apartment on the Andersonstown Road in Belfast, another property which he owns.
Mackin is originally from Belfast and his family has links with republicanism going back to the 1920s. During his childhood, his family had to move home twice because of sectarian violence. They were driven from their East Belfast home at gunpoint in the mid-1960s only to have the house they moved to in a mixed area of west Belfast burned by a sectarian mob a few years later.
Mackin joined the IRA at a young age and in 1972 was sentenced to five years in Long Kesh for membership of a proscribed organisation. He returned to the IRA upon his release and in 1978 was involved in an incident in Andersonstown, Belfast, where he and another IRA member were confronted by British soldiers. The two men were chased down a lane and Mackin, the second IRA member, and British soldier Stephen Wooton, ended up with gunshot wounds. Mackin was arrested and charged with attempted murder, but when he was granted bail he absconded and ended up in the US where, despite being there illegally, was prominently involved in campaigns relating to Northern Ireland.
The UK authorities sought Mackin’s extradition to Northern Ireland to face trial for the attempted murder of Wooton. However it was successfully argued in court that Mackin should not be extradited as the charges related to an alleged crime that had a political character. He was deported to the Republic, where he eventually set up home in a council house in Dundalk (which he subsequently purchased and is currently letting to a tenant). Following the ending of the IRA campaign in the late 1990s, the charges against Mackin were dropped and he was once again able to visit Northern Ireland without fear of being arrested.
State papers released in December disclosed that Mackin was involved in discussions with Dublin officials in 1995 when the republican movement was lobbying for a change in Garda policy in relation to the surveillance of Sinn Féin and the IRA, arguing that an easing off would make life easier for those within the movement who were in favour of a permanent cessation of the IRA violence.
Since the mid-1990s, Mackin has been involved in a range of private business ventures, including the operation of a snooker and gaming hall, and a security guard service, both based on Bridge Street, Dundalk, as well as a number of pubs in different parts of Ireland and a pub venture in Portugal, as well as the accumulation of a property portfolio.
He was also a director of a number of companies associated with the Parnell Centre on Parnell Street, Dublin, a substantial but commercially unsuccessful development that is home to a cinema complex, a car park, and a number of commercial units.
Prior to the ban on foreign donations south of the Border, US money was used to build up the Sinn Féin machine in the Republic, Mackin told The Irish Times in 2020. ‘It was a lot of money’
In September 2006, the Revenue reached a €40,973 tax settlement with a company called Century City, of which Mackin had been a director up to January of that year. The company ran an amusement arcade in the Parnell Centre. Century was part of a group ultimately owned by Belfast businessman Peter Curistan, by way of a company in the British Virgin Islands. Mackin was a director of some of the Curistan companies, but not a shareholder.
In January 2006, Century and some other companies of which Mackin was a director were given the Probation Act after they pleaded guilty in the Dublin District Court to the failure to keep proper books of account. The ruling came after the court was shown proof of a €5,000 donation to the charity Alone.
The Parnell complex was financed by Anglo Irish Bank in the mid-1990s and involved a tax-driven investment structure and a so-called put-and-call agreement between a group of investors and entities controlled by Curistan. The centre failed to perform as hoped, as did a project Curistan developed in Belfast, and the businessman ended up bankrupt. He subsequently took a high-profile legal action against Anglo Irish Bank. These days, Mackin is no longer believed to be associated with the Dundalk snooker hall, the security guard business or any other private venture, though he is still active as a landlord.
However the scale of the finances he is involved with by way of Sinn Féin has never been greater. As well as being cash rich to an extent other Irish political parties can only dream about, Sinn Féin has a significant network of paid staff who support the work of the party’s politicians and report back to head office and the coiste seasta. In an interview with The Irish Times after the 2020 general election, Mackin said the number of party staff was probably in the region of 200.
Sinn Féin’s finances include an online merchandising operation and the management of significant sums raised in the United States and elsewhere. It is legally possible to bring some of the US money to Northern Ireland under UK law. Prior to the ban on foreign donations south of the Border, US money was used to build up the Sinn Féin machine in the Republic, Mackin told The Irish Times in 2020. “It was a lot of money.”
The transfers from the Hampton estate have helped the party fund its operations in Northern Ireland, where the closure of the Northern Ireland Assembly cut off some income flow. “For a while there we were under pressure,” Mackin said in 2020 in relation to Sinn Féin’s finances in Northern Ireland. “Then Billy’s [Hampton’s] money came over the hill like the cavalry.”
It appears the Hampton money, though enormous, is being consumed at a significant rate, and the financing of Sinn Féin’s Northern operation will soon be under pressure again. Along with dealing with the Sipo complaints, and bad publicity, Mackin will have to think of new ways to keep the Northern machine on the road before the Hampton money runs out.