Stormont Speaker reacted with fury when officials queried his questionable hospitality claims

Jim Kilfedder pictured in 1987 PACEMAKER BELFAST
Jim Kilfedder pictured in 1987 PACEMAKER BELFAST

Assembly Speaker Jim Kilfedder erupted with incandescent indignation when civil servants gently told him that it would be “embarrassing” if the public realised how much he was spending on hospitality.

So outraged was the North Down political maverick at questions about his spending that he raised the issue with the Secretary of State and with Ian Paisley.

The file gives a telling insight into how some senior politicians viewed expense allowances in an era long before the 2010 Daily Telegraph exposure of the excesses of the Westminster expenses system.

Mr Kilfedder, the flamboyant leader of the Ulster Popular Unionist Party, had first been elected as an MP in 1964, so would have been familiar with the Westminster system.

However, at the time of Mr Kilfedder’s death in 1995, an obituary by the veteran Labour MP Tom Dalyell recounted: “There was much ribaldry about his getting a higher salary than the prime minister with a total of nearly £47,000, combining his Westminster pay with that of Speaker for the Northern Ireland Assembly. The truth is that he did not accept a large part of it and behaved with perfect propriety.”

From files released in Belfast under the 20-year-rule it appears that the Assembly Clerk, John Kennedy, asked another official, T Whiteside, to gently ask the Speaker about his hospitality spending.

In the government papers declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast, there is an entire file on the Speaker’s hospitality.

The ‘Prior Assembly’ (so-called after the Secretary of State who created it) was much less significant than today’s Stormont, effectively operating in an advisory role to direct rule ministers, and was boycotted by nationalists. In December 1982 — the year that the institution was set up — officials sought advice on how much money should be allocated for wining and dining by the Speaker.

A memo from Mr Whiteside to the Assembly Clerk said that “as far as we can ascertain, there is no limit on the hospitality account of the Speaker at Westminster and he entertains frequently and lavishly”.

It added that the Northern Ireland Civil Service “draws the line on ‘drinks cupboard’ provision at Permanent Secretary level (with very few exceptions) and allows £100 per annum”.

It quickly became apparent that officials believed Mr Kilfedder was entertaining on a grand scale. From October 1983 to July 1984, he spent £6,797 (almost £20,000 today) — £4,868 on food and £1,928 on drink — while entertaining.

An August 1984 memo from clerk assistant LJ Tait to Mr Kennedy headed ‘Assembly hospitality, etc’ said: “You will recall that before your departure on leave we discussed our shared concern at trends in these matters and you asked me to explain the situation to the Speaker, with the intention that we might thereby discourage any further slippage down the potentially embarrassing track to which, under Mr Kilfedder’s initiative, we seem committed.”

He went on: “With enough difficulty, I captured Mr Kilfedder’s attention on one of his visits, and sought to explain our misgivings on the former topic as delicately and discreetly as I could. To say that the attempt was not well received is to put it mildly. He gave me to understand that he deeply resented implications of criticism of his decisions by you and me.

“He effectively asserted that it was for him as Speaker to decide when and to whom the facilities of the Assembly should be made available and that all requests should be referred to and decided by him (the administrative staff having no role in the matter) that when he asked for certain sums to be made available for hospitality absolute discretion reposed with him as to how those provisions should be expended, and that it was not for the Clerk (or me) to criticise his conduct.

“I attempted to point out that it was not my purpose to criticise, but rather to bring to his attention, on your behalf, matters which appeared to us to carry potential for difficulty and/or embarrassment....naturally, I strove throughout to keep the discussion on a sensible, rational and quiet level. This unfortunately proved impossible. Mr Kilfedder would not permit me to finish a sentence without precipitate intervention and deliberate misconstruction and misrepresentation.”

Later that month, Mr Kennedy wrote directly to the Speaker. In his seven-page memo, the Assembly’s most senior official said that he was increasingly concerned that “I might find difficulty, if called upon, to justify authorisation of expenditure on certain types of purported official hospitality whose nature I find it hard to accommodate within a reasonable definition of that term”.

But four months later, the issue remained unresolved. In a January 1985 memo to Mr Kennedy, the Speaker said that he had told the Assembly’s Business Committee that he would not be holding or paying for any official functions until the end of the financial year.

He went on: “This decision was forced on me by the belief that I had reached the limit which was discourteously and arbitrarily imposed...while I am waiting for a decision by the proper authorities regarding the maximum for Official Hospitality I shall keep within the imposed limit.”

Five days later, Mr Kennedy replied, telling the Speaker that he had not expected the issue to be drawn to the attention of the Secretary of State and that he regretted that the Speaker had done so.

But in a sharp letter to Mr Kennedy the following month, Mr Kilfedder said: “Naturally, I accept your apology, though I doubt if you fully appreciate the hurt caused.” In the letter, Mr Kilfedder indignantly informed the Assembly Clerk that he would not be claiming anything further for hospitality for the rest of the financial year, but blamed officials for not alerting him earlier to the fact that he had breached the budgeted amount set aside for hospitality.

But records show that Mr Kilfedder continued to claim hospitality expenses after that letter was sent. He claimed a total of £144.79 for February alone and £127.91 the following month. However, nothing was claimed in April.

Later, in September 1985, the Speaker claimed for a Tyrone Crystal paperweight to be sent to a former Secretary of State’s daughter as a Christening present. That year his total spending was just over £5,000 (£14,000 today).

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