FAPP: The difference between one MLA parties and independents is what exactly?

What’s the difference between Jim Allister & John McCallister? Between Steven Agnew or Basil McCrea & Claire Sugden? The answer is about £25,600. That’s how much the NI Assembly’s ‘Financial Assistance for Political Parties’ scheme values a party at, one with even just 1 MLA.

There are currently 18 independent members of Dáil Éireann, 11% of the entire house, often providing starkly liberated representation, generally free from the concerns of party politics. There are 2 independent members of the Northern Irish assembly, 1.8% of the entire house and 1 of those members has previously been a member of 2 different parties.

Here are the finances laid bare.

Currently, every single member of the Northern Irish Assembly receives a salary of £48,000 (more is available for members who hold a particular office or position).

Separate from their salary, MLAs receive an ‘OCE’, or ‘Office Cost Expenditure’ of £67,161, this is to be used to pay for essential expenses, office costs, staffing salaries and general expenditure required in the process of carrying out the job of being an MLA.

In addition to this, there is also the ‘Financial Assistance for Political Parties’ scheme, which gifts a certain amount depending upon meeting specific criteria, with the following guidelines:

  • £25,600 in respect to the costs incurred by a political party for unauthorised purposes where that party has only one member

Followed by a sliding scale:

  • (b)£51,100 in respect of the costs incurred by a political party for authorised purposes where that party has two or more members;
  • (c)£3,200 in respect of the costs incurred by a political party for authorised purposes in respect of each member who does not hold a ministerial or junior ministerial post;
  • (d)£16,000 in respect of the costs incurred by a political party in the administration of its Whips’ Office where that party has more than two but fewer than eleven connected members;
  • (e)£24,000 in respect of the costs incurred by a political party in the administration of its Whips’ Office where that party has more than ten but fewer than twenty-one connected members;
  • (f)£32,000 in respect of the costs incurred by a political party in the administration of its Whips’ Office where that party has more than twenty connected members;
  • (g)Where during any year financial assistance is payable to any party under Article 3 (d), (e) or (f), £530 in respect of the costs incurred by a political party to administer its Whips’ Office in respect of each member who is connected with that party who does not hold a ministerial or junior ministerial post

Dáil Éireann has a scheme called the Party Leaders Allowancethe amount of financial support available is not exclusive to parties. There is €48,457 per member for each of the first ten members of a qualifying party. €38,837 per member for each member from 11-30 members and €19,423 for each member over 30 members.

In contrast to the Assembly system, there is an allowance of €27,934 for non-party members of the Dáil – without which it might be difficult for the independent members to compete on a fair(er) playing field against the larger parties.

This brings me to a question; what constitutes a political party, in Northern Ireland at least? What is required to meet the qualification criteria for the FAPP scheme that supports parties over individuals?

According to the NI Assembly, to be considered a political party, the party must simply be registered with the Electoral Commission.

To become a political party with the Electoral Commission, there must be certain roles filled (by at least 2 different people).

  • Party Leader
  • Party Treasurer
  • Nominating Officer.

There are a number of other administrative criteria, such as having a financial scheme, party constitution, having a party name, description and emblems.

But that’s it.

So, for example, a one-member party such as NI21 with only 1 elected official in Northern Ireland, who as a party have never faced an assembly election and, according to the Newsletter’s Sam McBride, have as few as 10 party members – qualify for £25,600 in the FAPP scheme to support their party.

So too the TUV and the Green Party in Northern Ireland, with their 1 elected MLA each, qualify for the Assembly’s FAPP scheme.

Which brings us back to independents in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

John McCallister & Claire Sugden, both unaffiliated with any political party, have only the ‘OCE’ to support their work. The scheme is set up in such a way that in fact, should they choose to, they would both instantly be financially better off if they were to create a party, appoint 1 other person as a party officer, then collect their £25,600 from the FAPP scheme.

John McCallister MLA spoke to me about the scheme:

“There is nothing to stop me registering a party and being entitled to the FAPP money. We (independents) have no rights even for a small amount as things like technical groups aren’t recognised.

“You just need to register and do a quarterly return to the electoral commission. There is nothing stopping me being leader and party treasurer too so you don’t need many members or indeed any. It does give parties an advantage.”

Perhaps a scheme such as this which is there to support the work of members in the NI Assembly, should either offer some level of support for independents or establish strong(er) guidelines on what constitutes a political party that is eligible for FAPP.

As it stands, plurality of voice is somewhat lacking in the Assembly, what separates the Unionist parties isn’t always entirely clear at times (pacts aside), equally the nationalist parties tend to agree with each other more often than not, what value could a many and varied independent voice have in the Assembly?

Claire Sugden MLA said of independent representatives:

“Independents provide a point of reference for proper scrutiny. Only independents can legitimately scrutinise the government without prejudice, because we can never aim to be in government.

“Our aim is to fulfil the role of MLA (as well as) scrutinise Government. Independents also raise the bar of representation.

“I’m not whipped, so I am guided only by the people I represent. True democracy should begin with the people. Too often the people are second to political parties.”

Regarding political parties in general, she added:

“Party politics is ruining NI. Politics here is not about people or good public service, clearly! It’s about money and power. Independents provide a baseline that we should always refer back to.

“In my own experience, I have been able to build good relationships with all parties because I am independent, they too view me as neutral without a party agenda, so I have achieved much for the constituency and NI by having that open door to government.

“I’m not a threat to anyone, other than highlighting how poor other politicians are… but of course that’s a good thing! it makes them up their game and then the people benefit.”

And on how her constituents react to her being an independent:

“When I outreach in my constituency, we are first asked what party I am, when they find out I’m independent they relax and welcome me with open arms. People want to engage but are fed up with political parties, so I am the alternative because they know I’m not in it for myself.”

What reason would we as a society, for it is our money paying this FAPP scheme, support elected officials in a party at the expense of those without? Are not all elected representatives equally deserving of support in undertaking their work.

Under what rationale are Basil McCrea, Steven Agnew or Jim Allister more in need of £25,600 extra public money to support their work than an independent?

Surely schemes with a value of over £25,000 for just one member should be less open to being ‘loopholed’ than they currently are – as John McCallister pointed out, if he were to register the “John McCallister Independent Party” tomorrow, he would qualify.

Of course parties with one or more members may not have much motivation to change this scheme and independent MLAs don’t have a great deal of resources to challenge the current system in addition to their normal duties.

The sheer number of independents in jurisdictions such as the Republic of Ireland causes problems of course, as we see with the current challenge in forming a government.

But when you consider that members like Jim Allister have carved out their political identity as being anti-establishment and outside looking in, how and why are parties with just one member being subsidised at the expense of one member without a party?