Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein war chest no guarantee of victory at the polls

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster
Michelle O'Neill
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Leaving aside its £1.5m donation from a former motor mechanic, Sinn Fein will enter any imminent Westminster election as the party with the biggest war chest.

It is by far the richest party in Northern Ireland and earned twice as much last year as the DUP, according to figures released by the Electoral Commission in August.

Given parliamentary arithmetic and Brexit turmoil, a general election will come as no surprise to any of our parties. But some will be severely stretched by the expense involved.

With both the council and European elections in May, an October Westminster election would be the third time we have gone to the polls in five months.

Given the parties fought both Assembly and Westminster campaigns in 2017, it would be their fifth election in just two-and-a-half years.

In her four years as DUP leader, Arlene Foster will have fought as many elections as Peter Robinson did during his eight-year tenure.

Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill yesterday insisted there was "nothing to see" regarding the £1.5m bequest to the party by William E Hampton who died in Pembrokeshire, Wales. He was living in a mobile home in the Republic when the will was drawn up.

TUV leader Jim Allister has called for the National Crime Agency to investigate the donation. Sinn Fein says it complied with all the Electoral Commission's rules and regulations.

"I understand it's a juicy story but there's nothing to see here," Ms O'Neill told BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback yesterday.

"A lot of people are trying to make something out of a story that isn't there. It's a significant donation - the party leadership will decide how it's used."

Sinn Fein boasted an income of £862,000 last year and was also the highest spending party locally on £940,000, according to Electoral Commission figures.

The DUP was well behind as the second highest earning party on £412,000. Mrs Foster's party spent £404,000 in 2018.

The Ulster Unionists enjoyed an income of £339,000 but spent £371,000.

The SDLP was also in the red, spending far more than it earned - £260,000 on an income of only £161,000.

The Alliance Party fared significantly better. It had a healthy financial year, securing an income of £246,000 and spending £218,000.

The SDLP, which relied heavily on Westminster funding, has suffered since the loss of its three MPs in the 2017 general election.

The party's income is now half the £320,000 it enjoyed in 2016.

Its weakening financial position is one of the reasons a Fianna Fail merger has been attractive to the party leadership.

The SDLP put significant effort into Colum Eastwood's EU election campaign with a battle bus touring Northern Ireland. Mr Eastwood's posters were also regarded as the most professional of all the parties.

Despite its challenging finances, a similarly big effort can be expected from the SDLP this time around with the party standing a real chance of winning back both South Belfast and Foyle from the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively.

While having cash to splash brings an undoubted advantage for any party over its rivals, deep pockets by themselves don't guarantee success.

The SDLP's poll-topping north Belfast councillor Paul McCusker spent just £562 on his campaign in May - significantly less than any of his rivals in the Oldpark District Electoral Area (DEA).

Analysis of Belfast candidates' election expenses returns showed that some of the candidates who spent the most failed to be elected, while low-spenders like Alliance's Michael Long, and the party's former lord mayor Nuala McAllister, topped the poll in their DEAs.

In Oldpark, Mr McCusker secured 2,856 first preferences - 1,200 votes over quota.

The Workers' Party's Chris Bailie spent £1,695 - over three times the amount of the SDLP man - yet secured only 93 votes.

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