Sinn Fein has been funnelling vast sums of taxpayers’ money into ‘front companies’ set up to disguise the fact that the party owns properties being paid for with public money, a BBC Spotlight investigation on Tuesday night alleged.
Senior Sinn Fein figures including Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have been paying tens of thousands of pounds of public money from their Assembly expenses to rent offices legally owned by so-called societies.
However, a trustee of one of the societies — in law, one of the landlords — said that he had never seen a penny of the rent claimed for the building.
Sinn Fein denied that the societies were merely acting on its behalf and insisted that its members had not broken the law. In the wake of the programme last night there were calls for an inquiry into the wider issue of how the £70,000 a year given to MLAs to run their constituency offices has been used by some politicians.
The programme also made detailed revelations about the financial arrangements of two senior DUP members — Ian Paisley Jr and Arlene Foster.
Mr Paisley is claiming rent from Westminster for his Ballymena office, despite rent also being claimed by two DUP MLAs for the same property in Church Street.
And Mrs Foster was revealed to have used two offices which had strong links to senior Orange figure David Mahon.
Yet, until she was contacted by Spotlight, the DUP minister had not declared that he had signed her nomination papers.
The programme’s analysis showed that over the last decade the MLA who consistently had the lowest expense claims was the former Alliance Lagan Valley MLA Seamus Close.
Mr Close, who claimed about half of that to which he was entitled, said: “I know for a fact that there were those who thought I was insane because I didn’t spend it all.”
Two republican sources told the programme that Sinn Fein had set up societies “as fronts” to get financial benefits not available to political parties.
The programme found that Martin McGuinness, Francie Molloy, Mitchel McLaughlin and Daithi McKay all paid rent to societies.
Mr McGuinness has paid almost £100,000 from public funds to such bodies.
One of those, the South Derry Cultural and Heritage Society, owns Gulladuff Hall in Mid Ulster.
Despite being described by Sinn Fein’s newspaper as a Sinn Fein headquarters when it opened, the party denies that it owns the building.
But one of the building’s trustees, Mickey McMonagle, who has now left Sinn Fein, said that he had never received rent.
He told the programme that he had never heard of ‘South Derry Cultural and Heritage Society’.
Sinn Fein said it was “a worthy use of public funds” and that the party got no financial benefit from the hall.
Spotlight revealed that North Antrim Sinn Fein Daithi McKay, who has also rented from a society, was until recently paying £12,000 from public money to rent two offices in Dunloy which are almost within touching distance of each other.
Mr McKay told Spotlight that one was used as a private office and one was used as a public office.
The DUP’s Church Street office in Ballymena holds the record for rent from public funds — £57,000 which was claimed by Ian Paisley Jr and his father.
Revelations about the high rental figure and the fact that developer Seymour Sweeney helped to buy the office contributed to Mr Paisley having to resign as a Stormont junior minister in 2008.
Since then, the Assembly has re-evaluated the rent to £23,200, and a figure just short of that is claimed by North Antrim DUP MLAs Paul Frew and David McIlveen.
But Spotlight revealed that Ian Paisley Jr is claiming an additional £14,095 from Westminster, taking it above the Assembly’s valuation of what the rent should be.
The programme questioned who will ultimately own the building, which cost half a million pounds around seven years ago, when the mortgage is paid off.
When asked who the ultimate beneficiary was, Mr Paisley Jr said that the office was to be used into the future to provide a constituency service.
But DUP veteran Sam Hanna, the director of the company which owns the building, told the BBC that he was “just a side-kick” and that Mr Paisley had brought him in “to tide things over”.
He also alleged that Mr Paisley told him that “under no circumstances was he to answer any [BBC] questions”.
Later, in a statement issued through the DUP press office, Mr Hanna retracted some of what he had said and claimed that the ultimate beneficiary of the rent was “the bank”.