Martin McGuinness’s hand-picked ministerial driver has been involved in a staggering number of accidents, crashing nine times in as many years – while the First Minister’s civil service driver has never crashed in that period.
Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act have led to fresh questions about a DUP change to the rules which allows Sinn Fein to use its own drivers but pay them from public funds.
Mr McGuinness’s ministerial driver has been at fault for four accidents since 2011, costing the public purse £1,517 in repair bills. He was responsible for two accidents in March of this year, costing more than £600 of damage each time.
On a further two occasions, the car was damaged due to vandalism, with the satellite navigation system being stolen in July 2014.
READ MORE: Elliott calls for review of system to ensure that driving jobs are publicly advertised
Earlier this month, the TUV leader Jim Allister uncovered that new Sinn Fein Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is paying his own driver £34,000-a-year, a figure which is believed to be identical to that for every other Sinn Fein ministerial driver.
Five years ago, the News Letter revealed that at that point Mr McGuinness’s ministerial driver had been involved in more crashes than all the other ministerial drivers put together.
The vehicle had been involved in five accidents in five years.
In 2009 alone, the £15,000 Skoda Superb vehicle — which among its safety features has electronic parking assistance and nine airbags — was involved in three crashes.
By contrast, first minister Peter Robinson’s car had not been involved in any accidents since the restoration of devolution in four years earlier.
During that period, Sinn Fein ministerial drivers were involved in six crashes, while only one civil service driver had been involved in an accident during the same period.
Sinn Fein has always declined to use civil service drivers and instead employed its own operatives.
In 2007 the then DUP Finance Minister, Peter Robinson, ruled that if Sinn Fein wanted to use its own drivers then it would have to pay for them from party funds.
But in 2011, that decision was overturned by the then Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, although the new rules were not announced and only emerged after a Freedom of Information battle by this newspaper.
At the time, a A Department of Finance source said that the arrangement had been one of the factors which broke the budget deadlock between Sinn Fein, who initially were opposed to any budget cuts.
Documents released under FoI showed that Mr Wilson did not want to allow Sinn Fein to get public funds for their drivers, in line with his public statement that he wanted ministers to share cars and thereby cut the cost of the fleet, but the executive decided that the change should be made.
Official Stormont guidelines now appear to leave the door open for any minister from any party to employ their own driver and pay them from their department’s budget. It is not clear what, if any, recruitment procedures are followed for the hiring of Sinn Fein drivers. The guidelines say: “Ministerial drivers shall normally be civil servants at the appropriate grade. “Any alternative arrangements must be justified by a proportionate business case and be in accordance with employment law.”
The latest figures which show that Sinn Fein ministerial drivers are far more prone to crashing that their civil service counterparts mean that the system of Stormont chauffeurs should be reviewed, the Ulster Unionists have said.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Tom Elliott said that Sinn Fein should at the very least advertise the driving posts so that members of the public could apply for the jobs.
Mr Elliott said: “This calls into question Sinn Fein being allowed to have their own drivers. At best, they seem accident prone. Some might say, they`re downright careless.
“I understand that Civil Service drivers have to have some form of advanced driving skills. Does anyone even know what skills or training these publicly paid Sinn Fein drivers have to have to get a job? The fact that the jobs are not even advertised, and the drivers are wholly unaccountable to anyone but Sinn Fein, is just another example of the Executive Office failing in its duty to use taxpayers’ money openly and transparently.
“It’s time to review it. If the public purse is going to supply the vehicles and pay for the damage every time a Sinn Fein driver prangs a car...then the public has a right to know what level of training these people receive. Sinn Fein should apply some transparency to their driving pool, and tell the public how they can get a driving job.”
The News Letter contacted Sinn Fein last week to ask whether in light of the fact that taxpayers pick up the bill every time that there is an accident, the party is doing anything to improve the standard its drivers. However, at the time of going to press, no response had been received from the party.