[Updated] Another summer storm in a teacup over an MLA’s expenses…

So there’s a stink about Conall McDevitt using his wife’s research company to pay for secretarial work, and research. Tara Mills for BBCNI has most of the detail

For 2010 and 2011 JM Consulting was paid significant sums of money for what was described as ‘research and secretarial’ work.

JM Consulting is Joanne Murphy Consulting – she is a Queen’s University academic and also Mr McDevitt’s wife. But according to the assembly register for both years, when asked if any family member had benefited from office expenses Mr McDevitt said no.

That statement has now been amended and the register now states: “My wife has an interest in a company that has provided research services to me in my capacity as an MLA from March 2010 until November 2011”.

Mr McDevitt’s office expenses – like those of all other MLAs – are published on the assembly website.

Mr McDevitt declined to do an interview, but he said in the past his wife – on a voluntary basis – co-ordinated research services to him in his capacity as an MLA.

He confirmed that £8,000, £4,900, £800 and £600 were paid to four researchers between June 2010 and August 2011.

The problem with it is that most of the action takes place in a grey area in which Mr McDevitt can quite legitimately claim there was no direct benefit to his family. But because of the very greyness of the system they used, he cannot avoid it becoming a story.

In fact most Sinn Fein MLAs commit all their secretarial expenses to party head office and most of their research is done through Research Services Ireland Ltd, a private company co-owned and co-directed by the party’s NI manager of finance.

The only legitimate questions that can be asked in either circumstance are: was it spent on ‘real work’ that had to be done, and was that work done at a ‘realistic rate’. If the answer in every case is ‘yes’ then for Mr McDevitt (or indeed SF’s MLAs) there is, in fact, no substantial story here.

If on the other hand the answer to either is ‘no’, then all hell should break loose.

As to whether any Sinn Fein MLA’s family members have benefited from the party’s control of MLA’s expenses, as things stand that is a matter of private – not public – record.

UPDATE:

I turns out that the BBC have had this story since March or April this year. The timing of its release seems to have been their choice, and theirs alone.

They also (I’m informed) know that there is no limited company as JM Research. Unlike, say, Slugger O’Toole Ltd or Research Ireland Limited, it is not a financially independent body. It’s a marketing brand used in this case to preserve the anonymity of individuals who work in political research.

Slugger further understands that the BBC also know who was employed and in what capacity. Despite some extremely idle speculation in the comments below none are employees of QUB.

They are professional researchers with whom the BBC was reluctantly offered interviews, which they subsequently declined.

The payments went directly to the researchers, and Ms Murphy did not in anyway profit from the work.

In other words, someone in the BBC waited until the McD’s were about to head off on holidays before launching a politically awkward googly without taking the opportunity to check the story first.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty