A UUP MLA has accused Sinn Fein of “abusing its position” after it emerged the party was continuing to use the offices of the deputy first minister at Stormont.
It is understood the party had continued to make use of the suite of offices allocated to the minister on the ground floor of Parliament Buildings, despite there having been no functioning Executive in place for the past 19 months.
The News Letter has learned that when the Assembly Commission was made aware of the situation, it took the step of removing access to the facilities.
UUP MLA Alan Chambers, who brought the matter to the Commission’s attention, said he was pleased the body had “taken action to halt this abuse of position” by Sinn Fein.
In a written question to the Commission, the North Down assemblyman asked for clarification as to who had the authority to use the facilities, given that there are currently no first or deputy first minister posts in place.
The Commission responded: “The suites of offices on the ground floor of Parliament Buildings, to which you refer, have always been allocated to the first minister (west side) and deputy first minister (east side) and their respective teams and the use of the offices has been controlled by the Executive Office, in conjunction with the respective ministers.
“Having been made aware that some of the rooms continue to be used at a time when there is no first minister and deputy first minister in post and, following confirmation from the Executive Office it has no current requirement for the rooms, the Assembly Commission has moved to retain control of the rooms.”
Mr Chambers told the News Letter he is looking forward to restoration of fully functioning Assembly, but added: “Until that time, parties such as Sinn Fein should not be able to use the trappings of power whilst they continue to hold the country to ransom.
“It was drawn to my attention that Sinn Fein were continuing to use the deputy first minister’s office in Parliament Buildings despite the fact that they walked away from the institutions in January 2017.
“Given the extensive facilities already accessible to Michelle O’Neill and her party, and the fact that they continue to boycott a return to Stormont, I didn’t think it was right that they were allowed to continue to use the trappings of power whilst abdicating their responsibilities.”
DUP MLA Jim Wells, who sits on the Commission, said the first and deputy first ministers’ offices are specifically ring-fenced for the work of the Executive Office.
He said “Since we reduced the number of MLAs from 108 to 90, that has freed up a lot of accommodation at Stormont.
“Sinn Fein have a suite of offices which they can use for meeting delegations etc, so there is no shortage of accommodation for MLAs at Stormont.
“The DUP did not need to use the first minister offices, as we have six rooms we can use at Parliament Buildings and they can hold up from five people to 30, and I have no doubt Sinn Fein have the same facilities.
“We are not denying people the right to meet groups or visiting constituents, but they cant use rooms that are government department rooms.”
The News Letter asked Sinn Fein to clarify what purpose it had been using the deputy first minister’s office for since the collapse of devolution.
A party spokesperson said: “Sinn Féin use a large number of offices in Parliament Buildings. The use of specific offices is a matter for the Assembly Commission.”