A Stormont minister has launched a ferocious attack on the BBC, branding the corporation “parasitical” for questioning her Stormont expenses claims.
Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster denounced the BBC’s respected Spotlight programme for including revelations about her constituency office arrangements.
Mrs Foster featured in a programme which also alleged that Sinn Fein has set up ‘front companies’ to funnel money into the party and that the rental on the Ballymena office used by Ian Paisley, David McIlveen and Paul Frew is above what it was independently assessed to be worth.
Yesterday Mrs Foster rounded on her critics.
In comments made to a BBC journalist and broadcast in detail by the corporation yesterday, Mrs Foster savaged the programme, claiming that it “dents people’s civic pride in Northern Ireland”.
The Fermanagh-South Tyrone MLA said: “This is typical of the parasitical nature of the BBC and the fact that they want to give out a diet of bad news and negativity to the people of Northern Ireland on an ongoing basis.”
Meanwhile, a former DUP ministerial adviser who is now an Ulster Unionist councillor has called for the London Committee on Standards in Public Life to investigate Stormont expenses.
Graham Craig, who once advised Sammy Wilson, said that the committee, chaired by Ulster peer Lord Bew, should take the issue out of MLAs’ hands.
Mr Craig also called on the Government to end the secrecy around who funds Northern Ireland’s parties, and added: “I am calling for the Committee on Standards in Public Life at Westminster to be invited to look into the affairs of the NI Assembly. The irony is that the NI Assembly will have to invite the committee and chair over.
“If MLAs, and I believe most do not, have nothing to fear — represented by the walls of defence put up in the media in the aftermath of the BBC Spotlight programme — then there is surely nothing to hide?
“The committee is ably chaired by Ulster peer Lord Bew of Donegore and I strongly believe that he should have an invite extended to look into the affairs of the NI Assembly if our MLAs and politicians are to maintain any credibility at all.”
Earlier, Mrs Foster had told the BBC: “A derelict house for £75,000 on the main street of a provincial town - what’s the story?
“There is no story and yet the BBC feel that it’s necessary to have a story, so they have to answer to their own licence fee people why they felt it necessary to put a story out on that.”
When asked why she had waited for years, and until Spotlight contacted her, before declaring the property with the Assembly, Mrs Foster said that she did not believe it was necessary to do so.
“The standards and privileges people said, ‘yes that’s right, you didn’t need to register it but maybe you want to in the spirit of openness and transparency to put it on the record’,” she said.
“I put it on the record but there was no necessity for me to record that, and therefore there’s no story and yet the BBC felt it necessary to run me out with other people and I just think it’s pathetic. Pathetic.”
What Spotlight revealed
Although Arlene Foster was fiercely critical of the BBC for focusing on her rental arrangements, the DUP has not disputed the facts revealed in Tuesday’s Spotlight programme.
The film revealed that Mrs Foster had been given the use of a part-time office rent-free from a businessman.
During the period Mrs Foster claimed money from Stormont for the rates on the building.
Both Sir Alistair Graham, Westminster’s former standards watchdog, and Pat McCartan, chairman of the body which sets the rules for Stormont expenses, said that they believed Mrs Foster had questions to answer over the issue.
The programme went on to reveal that the businessman, senior Orange Order figure David Mahon, later sold her another property and also signed her nomination papers, but the Enterprise Minister only declared the interest after being questioned about it by the BBC.
Mrs Foster and her husband bought a Lisnaskea house, the top floor of the adjoining house and almost half an acre of land connected to the properties for £75,000.
Later, Mr Mahon sold a smaller portion of the adjoining house to members of the Erne East Branch of the DUP, but charged it the same figure as the Fosters had paid for the larger portion - £75,000.
Mrs Foster then rented that portion of the building, using her Stormont expenses, as a constituency office.
Mrs Foster denied that the property was bought by the local DUP branch, despite the fact that Land Registry records the sale as having been sold to four people who were “trustees of the Erne East DUP branch”.
Last year, Mrs Foster’s husband bought the office from the four people, meaning that they now own the entire building.
In line with Stormont’s rules, Mrs Foster has now closed the office.