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Revealed: Gifts and hospitality lavished on Stormont ministers over past five years

By Kevin McStravock

Published 20/06/2015

Copy of the Koran and a prayer mat given to Peter Robinson, print of sumo wrestler for Martin McGuinness
Copy of the Koran and a prayer mat given to Peter Robinson, print of sumo wrestler for Martin McGuinness
Scholarships: Racehorse owner JP McManus

Stormont ministers have been lavished with hundreds of gifts, including a £1,000 statue of a horse, an investigation has revealed.

Cases of wine, Waterstones vouchers, concert tickets, silk ties and crystal bowls were among some of the many freebies presented to Northern Ireland's top politicians over the past seven years.

The gifts were offered to the ministers by private companies and Heads of State, according to information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Some of the most expensive gifts were presented to the Minister for Employment and Learning (DEL) Stephen Farry, whose items included the horse statue worth £1,000, a fox ornament valued at £800 and a £255 pen.

All of these were given to him by Irish businessman and racehorse owner JP McManus when he attended the JP McManus Scholarship Awards in 2012 and 2013.

The DEL insisted that these were not personal gifts, but will remain within the department following a change of minister.

Among the hampers, plaques and paintings were some less conventional items, including a handprint painting of a sumo wrestler received by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and a Christmas turkey, which has been given each December for the past three years to Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill.

Controversial Fifa president Sepp Blatter is one of a host of public figures who has given gifts to some of the Assembly ministers.

Former Culture Minister Gregory Campbell received a Fifa pendant courtesy of the Swiss football administrator at an FA dinner in 2009.

The register of gifts was released to the investigative website The Detail under Freedom of Information.

The Department of Health and the Department of Finance failed to provide a list of gifts received by their ministers.

The Department of Health said that the Health Minister had only received "inexpensive gifts" while the Department of Finance and Personnel said that it did not keep a register of gifts offered to the Finance Minister.

The recording of gifts received by ministers and MLAs is to be reviewed next week by the Assembly's Committee on Standards and Privileges.

A lack of routine publication of gifts received by ministers has led to demands for greater transparency. Ukip MLA David McNarry accused departments of being "secretive" and said it was in the public interest to ensure the information was readily available.

"I'm very angry that you have to twist people's arm to get information like this out to the public. You shouldn't have to go through the Freedom of Information Act to access this information," Mr McNarry said.

He added: "When you have to go to these levels, it makes the public more suspicious of politicians and reinforces the idea that we're all chancers.

"It's absolutely essential that the public is made aware of this sort of information, especially in this day and age when the behaviour of all elected representatives is looked at in such microscopic detail."

Mr Campbell, who received gifts during his tenure as Culture Minister, agreed that the information ought to be made public "when the value exceeds a certain amount".

"I don't think that declaring a gift of little value is in the public interest, but certainly when a minister receives something worth a significant amount of money, the public have a right to know," the DUP MP said.

Other items of significant value which have been offered to some of Northern Ireland's ministers include three tickets to an Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund Champions League game given to the Minister for Regional Development Danny Kennedy in 2013, and a free parking pass for Belfast International Airport given to Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin.

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