Northern Ireland’s political system is “rigged in favour of incumbent parties”, the Northern Ireland Conservatives have claimed.
Despite being a major political force in England and winning significant support in Scotland and Wales, the Conservatives have struggled to get candidates elected in Northern Ireland.
North Down candidate Frank Shivers criticised the current system after the revelation in Saturday’s News Letter that, under a previously hidden arrangement, taxpayers’ money is going to five political parties to pay the salaries of their press officers.
The salaries are paid directly from the Financial Assistance for Political Parties (FAPP) Scheme, which contributes about £800,000 of the £18 million a year which goes to either MLAs or political parties via Stormont.
The press officers, some of whom appear to be on significant salaries but whose exact salaries the Assembly has refused to disclose, are working for the DUP, SDLP, UUP, Alliance and the Green Party. Just one party – the Greens – voluntarily released full details of the salary of the press officer funded under the arrangement.
Mr Shivers said: “Things are rigged in favour of the incumbent parties in a number of ways and the News Letter deserves credit for casting a spotlight on the FAPP Scheme.
“The Conservative Party in my constituency, North Down, has a constituency office, which we fund ourselves, and every single piece of campaigning we do is paid for by party members, including any media work. We don’t get a penny of taxpayers’ money.
“In contrast, each of the parties with an MLA in North Down has a lavish office, paid for by Stormont expenses, which they use to publicise their party and campaign, as well as constituency work.
“FAPP is a clear example where money for Assembly work is being abused to pay spin doctors for the various political parties. That includes things which have nothing to do with MLAs’ day to day work and everything to do with political campaigning.
“The News Letter story comes hot on the heels of questions about MLAs’ expenses and revelations about some MLAs’ salaries being paid into party accounts. It’s absolutely vital that there is a clearer, more transparent system at Stormont, which doesn’t allow taxpayers’ money to be diverted into funding party politics.”
Each of the parties using the FAPP scheme to fund press officers has insisted that they are operating within the rules.
The Assembly has said that staff paid out of the FAPP scheme must work exclusively on Assembly issues, but that what they do outside of their contracted hours is a matter for their parties.