Sinn Féin passing the buck as controversy over its money deepens

Sinn Féin passing the buck as controversy over its money deepens

Updated: 1 month, 4 days, 16 hours, 34 minutes, 38 seconds ago

Sinn Féin is not a normal, democratic political party. That’s the accusation opponents have long levelled at it, seeking to play up the links with violence, criminality and its opaque internal power structure.

But it is also a boast the party makes about itself. Its director of finance, Des Mackin, told Colm Keena in The Irish Times a few years ago that Sinn Féin “don’t want a parliamentary party running the organisation. We want to stay a party of activists. It’s a totally different model.”

When she was asked about this perennial accusation, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said she was fully in control, and not some “shadowy figures”. She relied on her ‘misogyny defence’ as she frequently does when attacked. She said these accusations were “profoundly sexist” for their implication that “this woman couldn’t possibly be really the leader of Sinn Féin. Well guess what? I really am, boys.”

But McDonald might not want to claim full control or responsibility for the party’s finances just now.

​The problems that have emerged with Sinn Féin’s election declarations are growing in number and scale, now amounting to hundreds of thousands of euro. Someone got some things terribly wrong in Sinn Féin’s accounts.

The story, revealed last week by The Ditch, that Mackin is a landlord with at least 10 rental properties in Louth, one of which is regarded as inhabitable and others that have planning or other legal issues, might have been entirely coincidental. But stories are often leaked for a reason.

Is Mackin being readied for sacrifice for the cause? Mackin, who was jailed for membership of the IRA in the 1970s, has been director of finance for decades.

The further revelations of inconsistencies in the Sinn Féin accounts and its spending returns to the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) were raised in the Dáil last week.

Unsurprisingly, a slew of Government TDs and ministers are demanding explanations from the party that a few weeks ago was demanding the same of Paschal Donohoe for an undeclared donation-in-kind of a few hundred euro.

Mackin, whose own personal companies have used the same accountants as Sinn Féin, north and south of the Border — Kinsella Mitchell and Associates — was up to 2020 a member of the Sinn Féin National Officer Board, thought to be the most powerful committee in the party, the one that directs the party’s Ard Chomhairle. Sinn Féin has been able to use the different rules for political donations in the North and south to avoid scrutiny of wealth accrued in the US and other places. It uses a partitionism-of-convenience defence when it distinguishes between its ‘26-county’ and ‘six-county’ operations.

The most significant foreign donor was mentally ill heir William Hampton who left a fortune of stg£3m (€3.39m) to the party. Mr Mackin was one of the executors of Mr Hampton’s will. 

The money, the will stated explicitly, was to go to the party in the republic, but because of donation rules it cannot accept it here.

Mary Lou McDonald told Sipo that it had no authority to scrutinise its donation from Mr Hampton because the party operates on a two-country basis. Despite what the will said, she told Sipo “the donation that you refer to was not offered to, or accepted by, the Sinn Féin party in the 26-county jurisdiction”.

Though the party made assurances to Sipo that it will only spend that money in the North, Sipo returns suggest it is holding that money in the south. According to its most recent returns, Sinn Féin holds almost €3m in current assets in the south, and about another €700,000 in cash in the North.

The accounts for 2021 don’t appear to include the network of 50 properties Mr Mackin boasted the party owned. Some of this wealth can be accounted for by its significant budget surplus. The party receives the most public funding of any party; in 2021 it received over €5m from the State. Its income exceeded its expenditure by over €1m in 2021.

It also ran a significant surplus in its 2020 election year, something that is almost unheard of for a political party. It claims this is because it is a well-managed party with a strong activist base that allows it to campaign more cheaply than others.

But spending for some events in the 2020 election were invoiced in sterling from two media production companies in Belfast.

While the party claims these invoices were paid from Dublin, and its only mistake was not converting the sterling amount to euro, there is surely enough doubt about the validity of the accounts and Sinn Féin’s Sipo returns to wonder if Sinn Féin is spending its large inheritance with contractors in the North, but that it is being used for campaigning in the south.

Those doubts and the shadowy nature of the party’s finances surely will see Sipo demand full access to its accounts North and south and refuse to be fobbed off by Sinn Féin’s partitionism.

​Eoin O’Malley teaches politics and policy at Dublin City University.