Sinn Fein dodges questions over who paid for its Venezuelan trip

Anti-government protestors take part in a nationwide demonstration demanding the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela on Saturday
Anti-government protestors take part in a nationwide demonstration demanding the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela on Saturday

Sinn Fein has come under renewed fire after dodging questions about the cost of its party members’ trip to Venezuela, and who paid for it.

The party had already faced criticism after it announced it was sending two people to Venezuela – IRA man-turned-MLA Conor Murphy and party general secretary Dawn Doyle – for the inauguration of president Nicolas Maduro Moros (known simply as ‘Maduro’) in Caracas on January 10.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores acknowledge supporters at the end of a rally in Caracas, Venezuela last Saturday

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores acknowledge supporters at the end of a rally in Caracas, Venezuela last Saturday

His regime has been heavily criticised for both economic mismanagement and humanitarian abuses.

Despite days of repeatedly telephoning and emailing Sinn Fein in both Belfast and Dublin to ask who paid for the transatlantic trip and how much the travel and accommodation cost, Sinn Fein eventually sent back just one line: “Conor Murphy and Dawn Doyle were there as guests of the Venezuelan government.”

Based on this, it is “a fair assumption” that the Venezuelan public footed the bill said DUP MP Jim Shannon – who has spoken out against the Maduro regime a number of times in Westminster.

It comes amid ongoing Sinn Fein criticism of Ian Paisley for not disclosing details of his trip to the Maldives.

Mr Shannon said Venezuela is “the richest country in South America, and yet the people are on the poverty line”.

He recently came across a news story about a woman who had fled Venezuela – where inflation is rampant – because “her wages as a teacher could only buy her 12 eggs”.

“[This is a] government that’s got one million per cent inflation – and will probably be at 10 million percent before this year is out if Maduro isn’t removed,” he said.

“Sinn Fein should ask themselves this question: Why is the Venezuelan government paying for their expenses for a trip, if that’s what they’ve done?

“And if that’s the case, do they not feel some shame and embarrassment that people are on the poverty line and can’t even afford a meal, and yet their trip [there] has been funded by the Venezuelan government?”

He added: “They should’ve taken food parcels with them to help the people.”

Sinn Fein has made much political capital of the controversies about Ian Paisley’s overseas trips.

When it comes to his holiday to the recently conflict-ravaged island of Sri Lanka – which was paid for by that country’s government, on whose behalf Mr Paisley later lobbied – Sinn Fein had said it “severely damaged public confidence in the political institutions” and had called into question “where the DUP stands on fundamental questions of human rights”.

And when it comes to Mr Paisley’s trip to the Islamist-controlled holiday destination of the Maldives, partly paid for by an individual whose identity he had declined to reveal, Sinn Fein issued a statement last Friday (two days after the News Letter began asking for details of its own Venezuela trip) saying the “public is entitled to know who paid for this holiday” and demanding that the DUP “end its silence” on the matter.

When it comes to the issue of Sinn Fein’s own visit to Mr Maduro’s inauguration, Mr Shannon said: “They’re always asking everybody else [to be] transparent. And maybe it’s time for them to live up to their words and do the same.”

Although the Stormont Assembly is not currently sitting, its rules may yet oblige Mr Murphy – MLA for Newry & Armagh – to register some details of his part of the trip (though not its precise cost).

The rules on trips state MLAs have 28 calendar days to register who provided accommodation and hospitality if it amounts to over £245, unless the trip was taken under the auspices of certain international bodies or was “entirely unconnected with your membership of the Assembly or your political activities”.

If someone feels an MLA has not properly registered an interest, they can complain to the Assembly Commissioner for Standards (though any resulting sanction would be decided by the Assembly itself).

AMNESTY NI CONDEMNS REGIME:

Maduro is in his second term, having first taken office in 2013.

The CIA said that whilst his predecessor Hugo Chavez had significantly raised living standards, the country still suffered from a “repressive political system”, crime, and corruption.

It adds since Maduro took office an economic crisis sparked by falling oil prices has gripped the nation, with medicine and food now in short supply and well over two million people having left the country since 2014.

This has been met with a huge political clampdown, with Human Rights Watch accusing the security forces of “repressing dissent through often-violent crackdowns”, and using torture.

Mr Maduro’s 2018 re-election is widely recognised as unfair, and his presidency as illegitimate.

The UK and much of Europe now recognise opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim president.

SF has defended Mr Maduro’s legitimacy, with president Mary Lou McDonald quoted in the Irish Independent last month as saying of Venezuela: “There are people in this country who would not endorse Leo Varadkar on the basis that they have endured poverty... we also have to accept that he is the taoiseach.”

Asked if Mr Maduro’s election was free and fair, Ms McDonald said some observers (who she did not name) believed it was “conducted with democratic standards”.

The countries backing Maduro include Iran, China, and Russia.

Although Amnesty International NI declined to comment on the specific remarks of Ms McDonald, its NI director Patrick Corrigan said “the Venezuelan government has been responsible for one of the worst human rights crises in its history, with spiralling poverty and intentional use of lethal force against some of the most vulnerable in society”.

He added: “One of the most notable consequences of these mass human rights violations and the lack of public security has been a dramatic increase in the number of people fleeing to other countries, mainly in the Americas. The UN estimates that 2.3 million people have left Venezuela since 2014.”