Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald accepted the resignation of party Senator Elisha McCallion as a new financial scandal erupted in the North this week.
It has emerged that some £4.5 million pounds in payments had been “wrongly” paid into accounts across the Six Counties as part of a scheme intended to benefit small businesses affected by the Covid-19 lockdown.
The decision to deposit £10,000 payments into a list of bank accounts had been approved by the Stormont Executive to alleviate hardship of business owners. The scheme deviated significantly from those in other jurisdictions, where recipients of such grants were required to pass a needs-based validation process.
Among those who inappropriately received payments were a number of politicians and political offices, some of whom have now returned the money.
It emerged Sinn Féin Senator Elisha McCallion (pictured), a former MP for Foyle, had received one of the payments into a personal bank account. Two other Sinn Féin constituency accounts also received a payment, as did the account of the owner of a property used as a DUP office.
Accepting the resignation of Ms McCallion, Mary Lou McDonald said whilst no one applied for the money it was “uncceptable” it had not been paid back immediately. She also confirmed the resignations of two party members linked to two separate payments of £10,000 in West Tyrone and Lurgan.
“In each case the grant money has been returned in full,” she said on Thursday. “These monies should have been returned immediately as no political offices qualified for this grant. The fact that this did not happen is unacceptable.”
Ms McDonald continued: “The party has established in each case where responsibility lay for the administration of the accounts in question and for the reimbursement of these monies.”
The grant scheme was established to support struggling businesses “in times of extraordinary hardship”, Ms McDonald added.
“The failure to immediately return grants erroneously paid into Sinn Féin accounts is a most serious situation. As party leader I wish to acknowledge and apologise for these failures.”
While millions were handed out “in error” to businesses never eligible for the scheme, many businesses were forced to undergo a lengthy application and some were denied on narrow grounds. There have now been calls for the entire scheme to be the subject of a public accounts audit.
The quick response by Sinn Fein to the scandal was in sharp contrast with the DUP, despite its Minister for the Economy, Jonathon Bell being ultimately responsible for the scheme.
Little is known about those with DUP connections who received the funds. The party has so far only admitted it had one unnamed elected representative whose landlord received £10,000 for a party office.
In recent years the hardline unionist party has regularly faced allegations of financial impropriety, usually linked to North Antrim MP Ian Paisley, but there have been some very big scandals, such as the £1bn NAMA property scandal and the £500m RHI ‘green energy’ scandal.
While involving smaller amounts, the current controversy has echoes of the RHI affair, in which political insiders were among those found to have wrongly benefited from a business-support scheme intended to protect the environment. For those in the know, however, the notorious ‘cash for ash’ affair rewarded the large-scale burning of wood.
Stormont’s reputation for corruption was not helped by the outworking of the inquiry into the RHI scandal this week. After years of investigation, the public inquiry failed to find wrongdoing beyond “errors and omissions” for the unchecked exploitation that collapsed the Stormont Executive in early 2017.
And this week, it was announced that a former DUP Stormont minister and DUP senior party official will both now escape prosecution for leaking emails to the media which managed to deflect attention at the height of the public outcry.