Sinn Fein has acknowledged that Venezuelan taxpayers funded both air travel and accomodation for one of its MLAs last month, as its regional leader declared “there is no story here” when it comes to the party’s visits to the poverty-stricken nation.
Whilst Sinn Fein has been forced by Stormont rules to declare the source of funding for Conor Murphy MLA’s journey and stay – something it had previously been extremely vague about – it still refuses to give details such as the exact cost of the visit.
As well as Mr Murphy’s trip (which it has emerged spanned four days) trips taken by MPs Chris Hazzard and Mickey Brady in 2018 and 2017 have also been in the spotlight after the News Letter revealed the pair had not listed them in the Westminster register – a matter now raised with the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner by the DUP.
Initially, Sinn Fein had only said that Mr Murphy MLA (and general secretary Dawn Doyle who accompanied him) were “guests of the Venezuelan government” when they went to the presidential installation ceremony of Nicolas Maduro Moros on January 10 this year.
However Mr Murphy’s Stormont register of interests has since been updated to add the following listing: “9–12 January 2019: I accepted an invitation from the Government of Venezuela to the Inauguration of President Maduro. The Government of Venezuela paid for flights and accommodation.”
When it comes to the Sinn Fein MPs, who said they were acting as “international observers” during two separate elections, the party had already acknowledged travel costs were met by the Venezuelan government’s National Electoral Council.
The party said this was different from Ian Paisley’s undeclared trips to Sri Lanka because “these were not luxury holidays”, adding: “There was no payment and no personal gain involved for the Sinn Féin representatives.”
Pressed again for exact details of all the trips yesterday, the only new information Sinn Fein gave was that Mr Murphy’s expenses “came in under the £1,500 threshold for reporting to the Electoral Commission”, and that the party is “more than willing and happy to discuss” the issue of its MPs’ visits with the Parliamentary Commissioner.
Regional leader Michelle O’Neill took to the U105 Radio yesterday to say: “There’s no story here. This is about the DUP trying to deflect from the fact they’re on the wrong side of Brexit.
“They’ve a neck on them to talk about financial scandals whenever these people have been associated with everything from NAMA, Red Sky, right up to RHI – and then obviously the latest trips from Ian Paisley Junior.”
She said observing foreign elections is “part and course of being an MP, it’s something they do regularly”.
Despite being abstentionist, Sinn Fein MPs are still bound by rules on declaring politically-related foreign trips paid for by others.
Both Mr Brady and Mr Hazzard’s register of interests are virtually bare. Since the beginning of the most recent parliament in mid-2017, the only entry is a tranche of Mr Hazzard’s former MLA salary.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO GO TO VENEZUELA?
The nearest SF has come to giving some kind of figure for the value of the trips is to say Conor Murphy’s expenses were under £1,500.
Checking on the website Skyscanner, the News Letter tested how much it would be to fly from London to Caracas, return, for two people, in exactly one month’s time.
The cheapest option which emerged was £1,278 (with Air Portugal).
And according to the hotel website Trivago, three-star hotels over three nights a month from now range from £90 to £237 per person.
Food and medicine have become increasingly scarce in Venezuela, and allegations of torture and killings by security forces are rife.
The UK said this week it will provide £6.5m in emergency aid to civilians caught in the economic collapse, but Mr Maduro has blocked relief.
Last week a World Food Programme spokesman was quoted as saying in excess of one million people had arrived “starving, in Colombia with no money, no food, no medicine” due to the crisis.