Benefits probe is latest Sinn Féin finance controversy

Sinn Féin councillor Colin 'Colly' Kelly with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness
Brendan Hughes

THE benefits probe involving a Sinn Féin councillor is the latest financial controversy to hit the party.

Just months ago another Sinn Féin councillor was brought before the courts to face benefit fraud charges.

Derry city councillor Colin Kelly claimed around £19,000 worth of unemployment benefits despite receiving a council wage.

However, the judge acquitted him in July last year after a court heard how his salary was paid straight to Sinn Féin.

Derry Magistrates Court heard Mr Kelly had no "card, no chequebook, no access at all" to the account and that all his allowance went to the party.

Acquitting the councillor, Deputy District Judge Brian Archer said Sinn Féin should consider repaying the outstanding debt.

But Sinn Féin has refused to pay for the benefits claimed, with its solicitor saying that Mr Kelly is instead making regular repayments to the Social Security Agency.

The Department for Social Development has refused to say at what rate Mr Kelly is currently repaying the benefits.

However, the court was told Mr Kelly had been paying back £85 a month since the start of 2015.

It means it would take Mr Kelly more than 19 years to pay back the benefits worth around £19,000.

Meanwhile, there is an Audit Office probe after The Irish News revealed in September that nine Sinn Féin Derry councillors had their wages paid directly into a party bank account.

Payments worth more than £140,000 annually were going straight into the same account – including a council carer's allowance being claimed for childcare by Mr Kelly.

Sinn Féin had defended the arrangement, saying some councillors "choose to have their payments paid into a central account and make a voluntary donation to the party".

But in a 'U-turn' all nine Sinn Féin councillors have since changed to instead use individual bank accounts for their council allowances and expenses.

The revelations led DUP MP Sammy Wilson to call for an investigation into payments made to all Sinn Féin councillors.

SDLP environment minister Mark H Durkan has also said he will discuss with council chief executives whether new laws are needed on councillor allowances and expenses.

Questions have also been raised in the past over some political parties' claims for expenses at Stormont.

In 2014 BBC Spotlight reported that Sinn Féin MLAs claimed nearly £700,000 in expenses for research from a company run by the party's finance managers.

It also discovered that former DUP MLA Willie Hay's office claimed more than £4,000 for heating oil expenses in one year.

Earlier this week it also emerged that DUP Strangford MP Jim Shannon is being investigated by a parliamentary watchdog over his expenses claims.

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