Almost 60 Assembly passes allowing unrestricted access to most of Parliament Buildings have been issued at Stormont – on top of the 432 issued to MLAs and their staff.
The revelation comes amid concern about the potential access which lobbyists can get at Stormont, something which appears to not have been explicitly addressed in the rules under which political parties are given the passes to distribute.
The Assembly said that MLAs are personally given three passes – one for a member of staff, one for a researcher and one for a partner.
One MLA told the News Letter that in years of being at Stormont they had never needed to use even the three passes available to them as many staff are employed not at Parliament Buildings but in constituency offices.
On top of that arrangement, each party is allocated a number of party staff passes based on its number of MLAs. The passes are authorised by each party’s chief whip.
The DUP and Sinn Fein are allocated 11 party staff passes each; the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP are each allocated eight additional passes, Alliance, the TUV, NI21, the Greens and UKIP each have four additional passes.
Independent MLAs receive no additional allocation.
The Assembly said that “there is no category of Assembly pass for lobbyists”. Instead, passes can be issued to a political party, a contractor, the media, Assembly staff or MLAs.
Visitors are issued with temporary daily passes but cannot leave the Great Hall – the first large room just past the reception desk at the main entrance – without being escorted.
The value of a pass is that it allows the individual much greater access to the building – and in the case of passes issued to MLAs and parties, near-unfettered access to the many corridors, tea rooms and offices which on sitting days are teeming with MLAs, their staff and civil servants.
Last year questions were raised about Assembly passes after Jim Allister uncovered that Assembly access cards had been granted to Irish and US diplomats, an arrangement which he said amounted to giving them “a free run of the premises”.
Seven members of the British-Irish Secretariat, which brings together British officials and Dublin diplomats, had passes, as had five staff from the US Consulate.
In each case, the passes were approved by the Speaker’s office.
There is increased scrutiny on access to Parliament Buildings after various sources alleged that Gareth Robinson – the son of the First Minister – is regularly seen at Parliament Buildings wearing an Assembly pass, even though he does not appear to be employed by the DUP.
Mr Robinson quit politics two and a half years ago to run a “public affairs, public relations and sponsorship agency” called Verbatim Communications, and there have been suggestions that Mr Robinson has been at Stormont on behalf of his clients.
The News Letter attempted to clarify the matter with both Mr Robinson and the DUP.
We left a message for Mr Robinson, who did not answer his phone, on Thursday – having initially done so more than three weeks ago – but at the time of going to press there had been no response.
On Thursday, we asked the DUP whether Mr Robinson has an Assembly pass through the DUP and, if so, to set out the purpose of that arrangement.
The party did not respond.
Mr Robinson spoke to the News Letter in January 2013, at the point when he resigned as a Castlereagh councillor, and gave no indication that he would be continuing to work at Stormont in a role which would make him eligible for an Assembly pass.
“I’ve had to obviously spend time with the business and [his young son] – and the political side has taken a back seat now.
“I’ve resigned my position as of tomorrow and that will be me as just a private citizen.”
When asked whether Gareth Robinson holds an Assembly pass, the Assembly declined to answer, saying: “The issuing of passes is a matter of security for the Assembly; as such, the Assembly does not disclose details regarding individual passes.”