Council abandons plan to give ratepayers’ cash to political parties

Belfast City Hall.   : Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Belfast City Hall. : Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

An attempt to use Belfast ratepayers’ money to fund political parties has been abandoned, a week after it was revealed by the News Letter.

Councillors on Belfast City Council were considering paying £175,000 of public money each year directly to political parties, in what would have been an unprecedented move for a Northern Ireland council.

Sinn Fein, which appeared to be the driving force behind the proposal, was the only party to publicly support what was proposed, but other parties must have indicated agreement for it to have reached an advance stage in the council’s budget deliberations.

The first councillor to speak out publicly against the proposal was Alliance’s Michael Long, who said last week that it seemed to be an attempt to create a system of publicly-funded special advisers (Spads) for Belfast City Hall, similar to the system at Stormont where 19 Spads are paid up to £90,000 each.

But yesterday the proposal was unceremoniously abandoned at a meeting of the shadow council, which in April will take over running the capital city.

Cllr Long said that the money — around £700,000 over the council’s four-year term — will now be used for front line services.

The East Belfast councillor said that the decision was “a victory for ratepayers”, with the money now likely going to fund capital projects, and possibly going to help fund the Tribunal Service.

“This is a welcome move that all ratepayers will agree with,” he said.

“Part of the reason for moving to the new councils was to save people money. This proposal went against that and indeed all reasonable thinking.

“With budget cuts across all parts of society, it would have been breathtaking for the council to agree to spend so much money in such a way. Ratepayers’ money should be spent on services for them, not providing support for parties.”

At the time, Sinn Fein’s group leader on the council, Jim McVeigh, defended the proposal. He said: “We’re in favour of it,” he said, pointing out that with 19 councillors Sinn Fein “do need some research support to manage the team”.

The DUP’s Christopher Stalford said at the time: “There are a wide range of views in council on this issue.
“We will be pursuing options that are cost neutral.”

The following day the DUP, SDLP and UUP all came out firmly against the proposal, leaving only Sinn Fein to argue for the fund.