The latest scandal to emerge from the NI Assembly is the failure of Sinn Féin to return three payments of £10,000 erroneously made under the Small Businesses Grant Support Scheme. This was paid out to help small businesses dealing with the Covid pandemic.
On the surface, the scandal is less significant than some of those involving Sinn Féin’s partners in government, the DUP. However, the money was paid in March. Repayments were only made after BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show was tipped-off and began investigating.
In two cases, payments were made to Sinn Féin constituency accounts in West Tyrone and Upper Bann. In both senior local party officials have resigned, along with West Tyrone Assembly member Catherine Kelly. The payments were made to those registered as responsible for paying rates on party offices.
In the third case, £10,000 was paid into the joint personal account of former Foyle MP Elisha McCallion and her husband. At the time she was a Senator. She resigned from both the Seanad and Sinn Féin.
For many of her former constituents in Foyle (Derry City and surrounding area), £10,000 is more than their income per year. Four of the 10 most deprived electoral wards in Northern Ireland are in the Foyle constituency. The constituency also suffers the worst unemployment in Northern Ireland.
There is a contrast in the treatment of Sinn Féin and of benefit claimants. Anybody living in a working-class area knows people who have accidentally claimed too much in benefits. That is easily done, because the benefit system is complex. I know several people who have been taken to court, humiliated by the judge, fined, and been handed criminal records.
Yet again, though, there is one law for working-class people. There is another for Northern Ireland’s political caste.