Interesting story on Sinn Féin’s unique approach to managing its own political expenses in the Irish Times this weekend. This time it’s blown up in the south, where SIPO is investigating several well off-centre anomalies.
Pat Leahy sets the context for the story in the party’s own reaction to a number relatively minor (compared to SF’s own odd arithmetic in this case) infringement by Fine Gael’s Pascal Donohoe discovered in a whirl of controversy earlier this year:
When Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe was in the dock for his failure to properly register in his election spending declarations assistance received putting up posters from a businessman supporter, it was Sinn Féin that led the charge against him.
“Farcical!” said Pearse Doherty, the party’s finance spokesman. “His story lies in tatters… stretches credibility… concocted narrative,” he thundered. “What we need is accountability.”
Party leader Mary Lou McDonald was not to be outdone, as she detected the “stench of cronyism and favours for insiders”, she told the Dáil. Donohoe had engaged in an “exercise in concealment and cover-up from start to finish”.
“The theme of this controversy is the minister’s ever-changing story, the muddying of waters, the ducking, the diving to evade accountability,” she told the Dáil.
So what’s the fuss this time? Well, the party’s own “ever changing story” arises from a deep dive into its expense declarations and how that compares with its accounts north and south.
The election spending returns lodged by Sinn Féin with Sipo show total expenditure of €262,000 by the party at national level for the European elections in 2019. But the audited accounts for that year show spending of just €45,000. It is understood there was correspondence between the party and Sipo which suggested that the €45,000 figure was net of an expenses reimbursement of €114,000 given to parties who achieve a certain level of votes. However, this still leaves a difference of more than €100,000 between declared spending in election returns and audited accounts.
The Times asked an independent chartered accountant to look at several discrepancies (including exchequer funding which didn’t change even after its massive leap forward in the general election of 2020):
In listing its debtors in the 2020 and 2021 accounts, the party lists amounts of €240,000 for each year. This represents the amount outstanding at the end of the year for Exchequer funding due for the final quarter and paid in the first quarter of the following year. It is an identical figure for the years 2017-19. Sinn Féin’s funding was increased after its successful 2020 election result, so the quarterly figure due at the end of the year should have been different.
On the face of it, the Revenue Commissioners ought to be interested in that one. There’s also a bizarre (to any practised eye) claim by the party that its election expenditure was greater outside the short campaign time (when strict limits apply to party funding).
But perhaps the most curious aspect is the conclusion by The Irish Times’ independent accountant that the party in Northern Ireland is now dependent upon a legacy from an eccentric Englishman. Said accountant…
…observed that the latest published accounts for the Northern Ireland section of the party show that its costs are far outstripping its income from State funding or conventional donations, and the party seems to have been kept afloat by the donations from the estate of William Hampton, an eccentric Englishman who left most of his estate to the party in his will. Although Mr Hampton lived for much of his life in a camper van, he inherited large sums from his father and Sinn Féin is now understood to have received more than £3 million sterling from the estate of Mr Hampton.
But the Hampton bequest is also the subject of complaints to Sipo, it is understood. Although Mr Hampton’s will stipulated that almost all of his assets were to benefit “the political party in the Republic of Ireland known at this time as Sinn Féin”, the party circumvented a ban on large donations, and on foreign funding of parties in the Republic, by channelling the money to the Northern offices of Sinn Féin. It insists that none of the Hampton money has been used in the South.
But however large the bequest, it is necessarily finite. And without the resource of the Hampton donations into the future, the accounts suggest that the Northern party is likely to be dependent on the Southern party for financial support to enable it to function.
It’s an interesting (but frankly comical) idea that Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland cannot sustain its own expenditure there without the Englishman’s cash. It has the look and feel of a fictitious device. For what ends it remains to be seen.
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