In an ironic outburst, British Conservative leader David Cameron has used an electioneering visit to the north of Ireland to threaten to cut expenses from Sinn Féin’s Westminster MPs.
The threat marked the latest twist to an ongoing scandal in Britain over the payment of exaggerated and fraudulent claims for expenses to members of the Westminster parliament. The revelations over non-existent mortgages and claims for other items ranging from chocolate biscuits to a ‘duck island’ have humiliated scores of MPs and exposed the dirty secrets of Westminster’s elite club.
Although Sinn Féin MPs were elected on a mandate of refusing to take their seats in the House of Commons, they won the right to claim office space and expenses for their political work in London following a difficult legal and political battle in 2001.
Amid the revelations over expenses from the London Daily Telegraph newspaper in recent weeks, much was made of the claim by Sinn Féin’s five MPs for the rent of a shared house in London.
David Cameron seized on the issue of the payment of Westminster allowances to Sinn Féin in an apparent bid to divert attention from the scandal.
“We’ve got to clean up the Westminster Parliament, we’ve also got to cut the cost of politics and a pretty good place to start is actually to say to people if you don’t come to the Westminster Parliament then you can’t claim expenses for the Westminster Parliament.”
Sinn Féin hit back, saying: “David Cameron would be better off dealing with the stinking corruption within his own party than attempting to undermine the democratic rights of people in this part of Ireland.”
The expenses scandal almost caused a constitutional crisis in Britain and forced the Speaker of that Westminster parliament, Michael Martin, to announce his resignation. In the north of Ireland -- where the economy is funded by the British taxpayer to the tune of billions of pounds every year -- the issue failed to have the same impact.
Nevertheless, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams called on other parties in Ireland and Britain to come clean on their expenses as his party published details of the accounts.
“There is deep public anger over the abuse of allowances by MPs at Westminster,” Mr Adams said.
“There is anger at the systematic ripping off of taxpayers’ money from those elected to high office and anger at the complete lack of transparency and accountability. Not only does the system need to change, there is a need for a change in political culture.”
The party dismissed the criticism over its London accommodation, and pointed out that it had been illegally denied the salaries to which all MPs are entitled to receive.
“The British government refuses to pay Sinn Féin MPs our salaries and other grants which all other Westminster MPs receive.
“Over the last five years this has amounted to almost 2 million pounds.”
This includes 100,000 pounds a year in policy development grants given to the SDLP and DUP, Sinn Féin said.
Mr Adams pointed out that Sinn Féin had voluntarily published its full annual accounts.
“The electorate has the right to expect the highest standards from those holding public office and to be confident that taxpayers’ money is being used properly,” he added.
The party’s MEP for the north, Bairbre de Brun, published her accounts in full and goaded her political rivals in the forthcoming European elections to do the same.
The expenses scandal has also raised questions on the political culture in the 26 Counties.
Asked did he believe there was similar abuse in the Dail, Mr Adams replied, “Absolutely. Jeepers creepers, is the Pope a Catholic?”
The party’s candidate in the Dublin constituency, Mary Lou McDonald, said there was “clearly a resistance by Irish MEPs to publish expenses”.
Mr Adams challenged all parties to publish their expenses not only in the European Parliament, but also at Westminster, the assembly and in the Dail.
“There is a gravy train. We are not on it,” Mr Adams said.
But Sinn Féin’s Education minister in the North, Caitriona Ruane, was on the defensive this week when front page news was bizarrely made of the fact that her daughter missed three school days when she travelled with her mother to sunny Cyprus as part of her Ministerial engagements.
Ms Ruane was subsequently forced to confirm that she personally covered all her daughter’s expenses during an official government trip to the divided island, including a four-night stay in a luxury hotel.