On the Personal Austerity of Sinn Féin TDs
While the razor sharp glare of the media spotlight was focused so recently on the financial tribulations of Mick Wallace TD, who escaped to Poland and Ireland's glorious Euro2012 adventure to take his mind off his economic woes (and I wonder how that worked out for him), my own eyes were drawn, somewhat incongruously, to the Irish Daily Mail, not a "newspaper" I would make a habit of reading but occasionally it's worth trying to understand what goes through the mind of the outraged moral majority as they shuffle up to the ballot box to vote "Yes" for whatever socially regressive piece of legislation the conservative/populist government of the day is alleging is without any alternative, will provide stability, save jobs and stop all the ungodly foreigners from having their wicked way with our innocent and cherubic daughters.
What caught my eye this time was an interview with Cork East Sinn Féin TD Sandra McLella, who explained just how hard it is to be a TD under her party's unusual accounting system. In their bid to become the true voice of the working class, Sinn Féin has taken a laudable stand of solidarity with their constituents and each TD only takes the average industrial wage of €34,000 for their salary. In the article McLella makes the argument that it is very hard to live on €34,000, which I suppose is the whole point of highlighting how meagre the average industrial wage is and how out of step most TDs are with the economic hardships faced by the citizenry. Indeed, if only more TDs experienced life at €34K you would imagine they wouldn't be so quick to line up behind regressive taxes and other Troika-induced austerity measures.
However while living on €34,000 is something that Sinn Féin TDs are quite happy to highlight during debates and interviews, what they are less vocal about is that the remainder of the TD's salary, over €58,000, is not returned to the tax-payer, rather it is handed over to the party's control to be used for staffing costs, production of party literature and the ever nebulous category of "constituency work", and what was especially interesting about McLella's interview was the revelation that Sinn Féin TDs are also expected to surrender a substantial portion of their claimed expenses to party control, a policy which she summed up by saying "I don’t get to keep all the expenses either, but I get to take my expenses out of the expenses, if that makes sense".
Back in February The Daily Mail, who obviously have a bee in their bonnet about Sinn Féin, discovered that Dublin South-Central TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh had submitted claims for over €50,000 worth of toner cartridges between 2007 and 2008, most of which were used for party work, not exclusively by Ó Snodaigh's office itself, and although money was subsequently returned it did illustrate graphically how the expenses system was exploited by the party.
We learned yesterday that two more Sinn Féin TDs were being investigated for irregularities with their expenses, Donegal South-West TD Pearse Doherty, who used €8,000 in claimed travel expenses to pay the salaries of two party workers, and his Donegal North–East colleague Padraig MacLochlainn who did likewise with his own travel expenses to pay his secretary. While both TDs have admitted to this action, the unspoken (but unproven) implication would be that not only were expenses rerouted in an unauthorised manner, but that erroneous expenses claims may have been submitted to artificially increase the amount of pooled money available to the party to pay for party workers and advisors. This allegation would be a matter for the Dail committee on members' interests to investigate, but apparently they cannot initiate an investigation themselves, they must wait for a member of the public to lodge a formal complaint.
In 2011 three of the party's Dublin TDs, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Mary Lou McDonald and Dessie Ellis all submitted the exact same level of expenses, the highest or joint highest claim in each of their constituencies, for €31,865.51 each (an amount also claimed by the ULA/PBP TD Richard Boyd Barret in Dun Laoghaire, and Labour's Joe Costello and Anne Ferris in Dublin Central and Wicklow respectively, so presumably it represents the maximum level for certain categories of expenses). In fact in seven of their fourteen constituencies Sinn Féin TDs submitted the highest expenses claim, and in another five they submitted the second highest. Only in Meath West did Peadar Tóibín submit the lowest claim in his constituency.
Every political party must report any donations from an individual that exceed €5,078.95 in a given year to the Standards in Public Office Commission, and yet for the year ending 31st December 2011, Sinn Féin only declared two donations, from Aengus Ó Snodaigh for €6,000 and from Kerry North–West Limerick TD Martin Ferris, also for €6,000. However if all fourteen TDs are handing over control of €58,000 of their salary to the party, even if they are not explicitly doing so as a donation, in addition to a substantial portion of their expenses (whether or not those expenses prove to be inflated), and this has not been officially reported to SIPO, then there remains a serious question as to whether Sinn Féin have breached the rules for party donations, a matter that SIPO now looks likely to investigate.
2011 TDs final expenses by Constituency where Sinn Féin have a TD
data drawn from TheJournal.ie - TDs' expenses (31st Dáil, 2011)
Following on from the Fiscal Compact Referendum campaign the narrative being created by the media, and embraced by Sinn Féin, is that the party is now positioned strongly as the voice of the urban working class, building on its already existing base in rural, northern and border areas such as Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan, Sligo, Leitrim and Louth. The much trumpeted policy of expressing solidarity with the working class through the adoption of the average industrial wage plays well in an age of austerity and inequality, where the grossly inflated salaries of our public representatives stand in mockery to the levels of grinding poverty experienced by those they claim to represent. However a lack of transparency around this policy and a succession of irregularities in the financial methodology used by both individual TDs and the party itself casts a cloud of uncertainty over the party's claims to represent a break with the traditionally corrupt practices of the oligarchs of our political kleptocracy.
If Sinn Féin truly want to champion the poor, the marginalised and those most vulnerable in our society and break free from the single-issue platform that has dominated the party for most of its existence, they really have to do better than this.