A “total failure of transparency” continues to surround tens of thousands of pounds which were paid to a Sinn Fein figure for months after she ceased being an MLA, according to Jim Allister.
The TUV leader was speaking over a week after he first revealed that ex-South Down MLA Caitriona Ruane was continuing to receive a £55,500-per-year salary as principal deputy speaker, despite not having even stood in the last Assembly election.
For over a week, the News Letter has been seeking answers to outstanding questions about the affair – particularly about Ms Ruane’s claim that she donated her salary to a series of charities and groups.
She had made the claim in a written statement on October 19 in which she said she was quitting as principal deputy speaker, mere hours after her ongoing position was revealed.
However she did not name any of the charities in question, and continued efforts to find out the identity of the organisations have gone unanswered.
Mr Allister said that, whichever charities they are, they must consider if “they wish to be allied with this controversial process”, arguing that any of the £55,500 salary which may have been donated to them by Ms Ruane “essentially wasn’t her money to give away”.
He said: “This was public money and she, by her resignation, acknowledges she shouldn’t have been receiving it – otherwise she wouldn’t have resigned.
“So why does she think she has the right to distribute public money in this fashion?”
It is now nine days since Ms Ruane quit her principal deputy speaker position.
The Assembly said that she had ceased to be an MLA in January, but a loophole in the rules meant she was continuing to draw a £55,500 principal deputy speaker’s salary regardless.
It is all down to the fact that the Assembly has met for just 44 minutes since the March election due to the political stalemate, so nobody has been freshly elected to fill the posts of speaker, principal deputy speaker, and deputy speaker.
Ms Ruane had originally been appointed to her speaking post in May 2016 – a role which essentially means being second-in-command of proceedings at the Assembly.
In her October 19 resignation statement she said: “I have resigned with immediate effect as principal deputy speaker. I have put on record with the Assembly last March I would be donating the salary to a wide range of charities.
“I can confirm that I have donated the monies received to charities and community groups including an Irish language group, a group for the elderly, an LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] group, and a charity for children with disabilities.”
Sinn Fein has said that because she is no longer an MLA the matter is nothing to do with the party, though a spokesman answered “no” this week when the News Letter asked if the party had taken any of her salary.
On Friday, October 20, the News Letter emailed a series of questions to Ms Ruane, and also gave Sinn Fein a copy of them and asked the party to pass it on to her.
The same questions were posed again in the same way last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
They included which charities got the money, and when it was given. These questions went unanswered.
Despite Sinn Fein’s denial of responsibility over the salary paid to Ms Ruane, Mr Allister said the party had shown of a “total failure of transparency” over the issue.
“To be quite clear, Ms Ruane was caught out, she was caught on, and that’s what forced her hand into resignation. And even if she did make some charitable donations, it essentially wasn’t her money to give away...
“I think what she should be doing with this public money is paying it back, not enriching charities of her choice – if that’s what she did with it. But that remains to be proven.”
As for the charities themselves, he presumed when “donations were made they received in good faith... but now that they know the full story it’d be for each charity to look at whether or not they wish to be allied with this controversial process”.
Rainbow Project silent on donors:
Among the groups Ms Ruane said she gave her salary to is an “LGBT group”.
One of the most prominent such groups is the Rainbow Project.
One of its 16 staff – Michael Gray Sloan – has been a political adviser to Caitriona Ruane, and helped start the group “Sinn Fein LGB&T”.
Asked if the Rainbow Project had been in receipt of money from Ms Ruane, its director John O’Doherty (formerly an active member of the SDLP) told the News Letter: “I wouldn’t be in a position to talk about any private donations that we’ve received. We’d never talk about a private donation received from an individual.”