Sinn Fein has its own questions to answer over repeatedly not declaring overseas trips by its MPs, with an MLA saying it has been “flouting the rules for years”.
Jim Allister, leader of the TUV, was speaking as Sinn Fein declared the DUP cannot “treat the public like fools” following a fresh BBC Spotlight programme about foreign holidays taken by Ian Paisley.
Last year Mr Paisley was banned from the Commons for failing to declare that the Sri Lankan government had bankrolled his holidays.
But after the News Letter began asking questions earlier this year about trips by Sinn Fein’s own MPs paid for by the government of Venezuela, it now emerges Sinn Fein has quietly registered 20 trips with the Commons.
With a few exceptions, hospitality is meant to be declared within 28 days, but some of the trips took place years ago.
Many of them involved an organisation called Friends of Sinn Fein Inc paying for MPs to go to the USA, while other trips were to Colombia and China.
The whole saga around Sinn Fein’s foreign trips began as follows.
In February, the News Letter looked into visits to Venezuela by Sinn Fein MPs Mickey Brady and Chris Hazzard – visits which were paid for by that country’s government (which has been heavily under fire over rising poverty and its brutal crackdown on dissent).
Seperately, the News Letter also looked into trips by a Sinn Fein MLA and party official to the inauguration of the embattled Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro (READ MORE ON THAT HERE).
At that time, all of Sinn Fein’s seven MPs had “nil” written next to their names when it came to declarations of interest on the Parliamentary register.
MPs are meant to declare “any visits to destinations outside the UK where the cost is over £300 if that cost is not wholly borne by the Member or by UK public funds” (though there are a few exceptions, like visits “wholly unconnected” with their political activities).
Even abstentionist MPs are bound by rules on declaring hospitality.
Now the most recent register shows 20 trips listed by the seven MPs, all of them added just last month.
By the News Letter’s count, 17 of them were registered outside of the 28-day window – sometimes by years.
Out of the seven Sinn Fein MPs, Michelle Gildernew alone registered all hers within that timeframe (though she had only one trip, to the USA).
The register shows all the MPs except Francie Molloy have availed of trips to America financed by a New York-based outfit called Friends of Sinn Fein Inc, sometimes on several occasions.
A small selection of trips which were paid for by other groups included:
~ Mickey Brady – a 2017 Venezuela trip costing about £1,100, paid for by the country’s National Electoral Council; and a 2018 trip to Colombia, paid for by Justice for Colombia in London, totalling about £1,900;
~ Paul Maskey – four trips from 2016 to 2018 to the US, totalling about £4,900 and paid for by Failte Feirste Thiar, an organisation which promotes west Belfast tourism; and a trip totalling about £550 paid for by London’s Centre for Turkey Studies to Ankara in 2017 to observe the trial of members of the Kurdish HDP party;
~ Chris Hazzard – a trip to China in 2017 to “promote cultural and sporting links”, paid for by Ulster University’s Confucius Institute and costing about £3,000; and a 2018 trip to Venezuela costing about £1,200 and paid for by Venezuela’s electoral council.
A statement from Ms Gildernew yesterday said that the DUP “has serious questions to answer” and it “cannot continue to treat the public like fools” after the Spotlight show about Ian Paisley.
But Jim Allister said of Sinn Fein’s trips: “Sinn Fein clearly have questions to answer about why these trips went undeclared for so long. It is vital that trips such as this are declared so that the public can have confidence in elected representatives. Yet republicans have clearly been flouting the rules for years.”
He added: “Now is the time not just to look at the undeclared trips but, with the renewal of the DUP’s confidence and supply arrangement with the Tories on the horizon, all unionists should unite in calling for the allowances for MPs who don’t turn up to do the job to be stopped.”
Sinn Fein said: “Sinn Fein MPs often undertake international visits to promote the Irish peace process and to share the Irish experiences of conflict resolution and peace building ...
“These visits are routinely publicised and never involve personal gain or advantage. We recently consulted with the Westminster Registrar and are happy to register all international travel.”