Assembly Speaker apologises “unreservedly” for handling of Charter NI question

Assembly Speaker Robin Newton
Assembly Speaker Robin Newton

Assembly Speaker Robin Newton has apologised “unreservedly” to the Assembly after revelations by the News Letter and the Nolan Show about his role in quashing a question over an organisation to which he has links.

This morning it emerged that Charter NI, which is headed up by an alleged UDA commander, claimed that Mr Newton was acting as its adviser six months ago.

The revelation about the East Belfast MLA came after the News Letter revealed that he had decided to recuse himself from any role in Assembly rulings relating to the Social Investment Fund due to his role on a steering group which recommended that Charter NI get £1.7m of public money.

However, last month he rejected an SDLP urgent oral question about Charter NI’s controversial funding – and did not at the time declare his links to Charter NI.

The Speaker does not have to give any reason for rejecting such an application to question a minister in the Assembly.

At noon today, Mr Newton made a public apology during a highly unusual lengthy personal statement at the start of Assembly business.

Charter NI’s chief executive is Dee Stitt, who BBC Spotlight has alleged is a UDA leader. Mr Stitt has responded to that allegation by saying that it has not been “supported by evidence” and highlighting that the PSNI has taken no action against him.

This morning BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show revealed that Mr Newton not only had links to awarding funding to Charter NI, but that the organisation itself claimed that he had been working for it in some capacity.

On 7 May, Charter NI wrote on its Facebook page: “Congratulations to our advisor Robin Newton MLA in being re-elected to represent the people of East Belfast. A post that he works hard for and highly deserves.”

At the time, Mr Newton was a DUP MLA. However, days later he was elevated to the Speaker’s chair, a position which means that he must be entirely impartial and seen to be such.

Mr Newton did not declare his SIF or Charter NI links when he rejected an SDLP request for an urgent oral question about the Charter NI funding last month, something which would have effectively seen the First Minister or deputy First Minister summoned to the chamber to take questions on the decision.

However, the Assembly told the News Letter that Mr Newton had decided at that point that he would not again put himself in that decision and will instead delegate such decisions to the principal deputy speaker, Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane.

Speaking in the Assembly at lunch time, Mr Newton told MLAs that “while I have offered advice, I do not hold and have never held a position as adviser to Charter NI. My involvement with Charter NI as an organisation working on the ground in my constituency has been no different than it would be with any organisation in my constituency seeking advice from their elected representative”.

He went on: “When a first urgent oral question was received in relation to Charter NI on the 24 October 2016, I gave consideration to whether I should take the decision.

“Given the time pressure, I proceeded to take the decision but in doing so I made it clear to my office that in future decisions where required it would be prudent for me to delegate to avoid any perception of conflict.”

He added: “In hindsight, I accept that it would have been better had I followed my initial instincts and also delegated the first question. I apologise unreservedly to the House for not having done so.

“Members can be assured that I will err on the side of caution in the future.”