GOVERNMENT officials in Northern Ireland and the Republic awarded £1.3 million to support ex-IRA prisoners through an organisation that failed to comply with company law.
The European Union paid most of the money, with the rest coming from the UK and the Republic. And the EU is preparing to grant the company yet more cash.
The disclosures by investigative website Exaronews.com raise questions about how the EU, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland and the Dublin government approved funding for a company at a time when it was failing to file accounts and returns.
The funding bodies would have discovered the company’s failures to meet basic legal requirements by making cursory checks.
The cash went to Coiste Na N-Iarchimi, which translates as “committee of ex-prisoners”, a UK-registered company based in Belfast that was even struck off in 2011 after two official warnings over failing to file accounts and returns for four years.
An EU cross-border body set up by the UK and Irish governments awarded the funding as part of a project aimed at helping to integrate former republican prisoners back into society.
Lord Trimble, Northern Ireland’s former First Minister, told Exaro: “The responsibility is on the [current] first minister to explain because, otherwise, the public will feel that something very wrong is happening.”
And Lord Laird, an Ulster Unionist peer, called for an inquiry into why the funding was approved for a company that at the time had failed to file accounts. He said: “It is an utter disgrace for a company that, for years, has breached statutory regulations to have received so much money. I want a full inquiry into how this came about. I want to find out who is responsible for this. I want it fully exposed.”
Coiste describes itself in documents filed to Companies House as an “umbrella organisation encompassing groups and individuals” working on behalf of former republican prisoners and their families.
One of the company’s two directors listed at Companies House when it was dissolved was Caral Ni Chuilin, Northern Ireland’s culture minister. She was convicted as an IRA terrorist and jailed in 1989 on explosive charges.
Ms Ni Chuilin, a Sinn Fein member of the Assembly, had been a Coiste director since the company was incorporated in 1999. During an investigation begun more than a year-and-a-half ago into the EU’s funding of Coiste, Exaro made repeated attempts to contact Ms Ni Chuilin to ask what had happened to the money and why it had failed to file accounts.
A Sinn Fein spokesman said that the situation had been “resolved” and that it was a “non-story”. He said that he was unable to give any further information in response to Exaro questions.
Five days after that contact, in December 2011, Companies House received notification that Ms Ni Chuilin had resigned on November 1, 2011 as a director of Coiste.
After further attempts to contact Ms Ni Chuilin, a Sinn Fein spokesman said that she “has stepped down from this role due to time pressures”.
The formal “letter of offer” to award £1,325,400 of taxpayers’ money to Coiste for the EU-backed project was dated in January 2009. The funds started to be paid from then in a continuous stream of tranches of up to £140,000.
The first payment of more than £60,000 was for expenditure run up by Coiste between October and December the year before. The project itself formally started in September 2008.
However, Exaro has established that, from August 31, 2008, Coiste was in breach of company law for its failure to file accounts. It missed a 10-month deadline to submit its accounts for the financial year to October 31, 2007.
Coiste continued to breach company law for four years by failing to file accounts until Exaro contacted it in December 2011.
Michael Culbert, Coiste’s spokesman and a director since March last year initially claimed that the company did not have to file accounts to Companies House.
But, after Exaro started investigating, the company was reinstated, accounts were belatedly filed and Ms Ni Chuilin resigned as a director.
The Northern Irish and Irish governments say that the EU funding organisation, the Special European Union Programmes Body, is responsible for vetting applications, while it claims that proper procedures were followed.