Northern Ireland

Pressure on Sinn Féin to explain apparent delay in returning Covid money meant for businesses

West Tyrone MLA Maolíosa McHugh. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
West Tyrone MLA Maolíosa McHugh. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

SINN Féin has been urged to explain why it took up to eight months to repay funds designed to help struggling businesses during the Covid lockdown.

A total of £30,000 was wrongly paid into Sinn Féin accounts in three separate tranches under the Small Business Grant Scheme.

Political offices were ineligible for the scheme.

The party confirmed yesterday that "three Sinn Féin offices received automatic and unsolicited payments of £10,000".

It added: "Sinn Féin offices did not qualify and did not apply for the scheme and the monies have been returned to the LPS [Land and Property Services]."

However, the party did not clarify when the money was repaid, amid suggestions it was only after the issue was raised this week by BBC's The Nolan Show.

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The BBC reported that West Tyrone MLA and Stormont finance committee member Maolíosa McHugh confirmed his office received the grant, saying he had contacted party officials to make arrangements to pay the money back "quite a while ago".

Maolíosa McHugh with Sinn Féin colleague Elisha McCallion
Maolíosa McHugh with Sinn Féin colleague Elisha McCallion

When asked if the money had been paid back "quite a while ago", he said: "No, I am not saying that."

The Nolan Show said it also contacted Senator Elisha McCallion, a former Foyle MP, about whether her office in Derry had received the grant.

They were among 452 payments totalling more than £4.5 million made by the Department for the Economy to those who may not have been eligible for the emergency funding.

The scheme was launched in March to help businesses adversely affected by lockdown measures.

The department last night gave assurances that no other political parties had received payments.

Earlier this week it emerged that 52 wind turbine owners were also among those who received the money.

DUP Foyle MLA Gary Middleton said it was "unacceptable and unjustifiable" that it appeared to have taken Sinn Féin so long to return the money.

"We are still in the dark as to exactly when Sinn Féin representatives found out about the error - the public are rightly questioning whether the cash would have been returned at all had media spotlight not been shone in their direction," he said.

Mr Middleton said he would be writing to Stormont's standards watchdog, urging her to investigate whether Mr McHugh breached the assembly's code of conduct.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "This scheme opened in March and if the money was only returned as recently as this week, people will rightly wonder what the reason for the long delay is."

Mr Eastwood also raised questions about the location of Senator McCallion's office.

"It appears the address is not publicly available, with her office address on the Oireachtas website listed as Leinster House – did Senator McCallion receive funds for an office that is not accessible to her constituents?”

TUV leader Jim Allister said he had also contacted the standards commissioner.

He said it came "at a time when many, including many of Sinn Féin’s constituency, are struggling to cope and yet the richest party in Ireland thinks it appropriate to retain for months public money it knew it ought never to have received".