By Q Radio News
Three Sinn Fein members have resigned, after failing to immediately return COVID-19 grant money paid to them in error.
Small business grants of ten thousand pounds were incorrectly paid to three party offices in March and April.
However, the payments were only repaid in full this week after the issue came to light in the media.
In a statement this afternoon, Sinn Fein President Mary-Lou McDonald said:
'Last night I accepted the resignations of the three individuals responsible for these accounts and for not returning the money - Senator Elisha McCallion, the Chair of Upper Bann Comhairle Ceantair and a party official in West Tyrone.
"The failure to immediately return grants erroneously paid into Sinn Féin accounts is a most serious situation. As party leader I wish to acknowledge and apologise for these failures.'
“Over the course of Monday and Tuesday of this week, the Sinn Féin leadership established that three party offices incorrectly received lodgements of £10,000 under the Small Business Grant scheme established by the Department of Economy in March 2020.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill says she takes the issue of public money “very seriously”— Q Radio News (@qnewsdesk) October 29, 2020
“What happened was wrong, it was unacceptable”
It comes after Former Foyle MP Elisha McCallion and two SF officials resigned over a failure to return emergency Covid funds pic.twitter.com/qroHM2wJDj
“The payments were not applied for and were automatically received as part of the round of grant payments in late March/early April from the Land and Property Service.
“Payments were paid into constituency accounts in West Tyrone and Lurgan, and into Elisha McCallion’s account in respect of her former Westminster office.
“In each case the grant money has been returned in full, with repayments made on Monday and Tuesday of this week.
“These monies should have been returned immediately as no political offices qualified for this grant. The fact that this did not happen is unacceptable.
“The party has established in each case where responsibility lay for the administration of the accounts in question and for the reimbursement of these monies.
“The Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle met last night and censured all those involved.
These public monies should have been returned immediately as no political offices qualified for this grant. The fact that this did not happen is unacceptable.— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) October 29, 2020
We view this very seriously and have taken decisive action. https://t.co/hBmxjosh0w
“Last night I accepted the resignation of Senator Elisha McCallion. She accepts full responsibility for the failure to return the grant immediately.
“The party also accepted the resignation of the party official in West Tyrone who had responsibility for the administration of the account and failed to promptly return the grant money despite being requested to do so by Maolíosa McHugh MLA.
“The Cathaoirleach (Chairperson) of the Upper Bann Comhairle Ceantair (Constituency Organisation) has also tendered his resignation in recognition of their failure to return the grant payment in a timely fashion.
“The Small Business Grant scheme was established to support struggling businesses in times of extraordinary hardship.
“The failure to immediately return grants erroneously paid into Sinn Féin accounts is a most serious situation.
“As party leader I wish to acknowledge and apologise for these failures.”
Also commenting, Elisha McCallion said, earlier this year a Small Business Grant was lodged into a joint account of which I am a named signature with my husband. I did not apply for nor solicit this money, nor did I receive any correspondence from the department in relation to it.
"I fully accept that as a named signature on the account that I should have taken extra steps to verify this situation, before it was brought to my attention on Tuesday.
"The money was repaid in full on Tuesday.
"I apologise unreservedly for the poor judgement I showed in relation to this and therefore, last night I spoke to the party leader and tendered my resignation as a member of Seanad Éireann with immediate effect.
Asked about the matter at the Executive press conference on Thursday, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that the decision not to return the Covid-19 relief funds was “wrong” and that it should not have happened.
“We have been very clear in saying it was totally unacceptable,” Ms O’Neill added.
The DUP is investigating whether a landlord it rents a constituency office from received the Covid relief cash meant for struggling businesses.
If so, this would breach the eligibility requirements for the Small Business Support Grant Scheme. MP and MLA constituency offices can not apply for the scheme announced by Economy Minister Diane Dodds (DUP) earlier this year.
First Minister Arlene Foster said that no DUP member has received the grant, adding the party made sure that none of the party offices received the grant.
“If a landlord received money that it shouldn’t have, then it should be returned, and if it hasn’t, the Department of Finance should pursue that money,” Mrs Foster added.
She said the scheme was designed so that it would not benefit politicians.
“It has to be paid back because it is public money,” Mrs Foster added.
“It was put in place to help businesses that were struggling at that time, so there is no way politicians or landlords should have been in receipt of that money.
“They have a moral and legal duty to pay that money back.”