Executive-backed Charter NI head pledges to ‘defend north Down’

Pictured at Charter NI (l-r) Councillor Sharon Skillen; David Stitt, CEO Charter NI; First Minister Arlene Foster; Drew Haire, Chairperson Charter NI; Caroline Birch, Project Manager. William Cherry/Press Eye
Pictured at Charter NI (l-r) Councillor Sharon Skillen; David Stitt, CEO Charter NI; First Minister Arlene Foster; Drew Haire, Chairperson Charter NI; Caroline Birch, Project Manager. William Cherry/Press Eye

The chief executive of a community development group supported by the Northern Ireland Executive has described himself as part of a “homeland security” defence organisation.

In the same interview, Dee Stitt of Charter NI also praised loyalist groupings for “keeping drugs out of our communities”.

‘North Down Defenders is our homeland security, we’re here to defend north Down’

The former UDA member, who served a prison sentence for armed robbery and possession of a firearm, had his past highlighted in recent weeks when £1.7 million of public money was allocated Charter NI.

Both First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have supported Social Investment Fund (SIF) cash going to the east Belfast/north Down body.

Last month, Mrs Foster celebrated the award which will be used to assist more than 300 unemployed and low skilled people to find work.

She said: “This project is exactly what the Social Investment Fund is all about. It is bringing about social change in parts of Northern Ireland that are suffering from real disadvantage and giving people a helping hand to make the most of their potential.”

Mr McGuinness also defended the project as targeting money at communities in need, and added: “If we were to be employing a rule of thumb that everybody who was involved in conflict in the past has no role to play in the future then I am afraid there would be no future for any of us,” he added.

Despite the high level backing, many political representatives and commentators have questioned why public money is being allocated to a body headed by someone with alleged links to the UDA.

In an interview which has been published on the Guardian newspaper’s website, Mr Stitt described working class housing estates as being like “a jungle” and said some people “see paramilitary structures, groupings as a negative”.

However, he went on to say: “But Loyalist groupings are doing some brilliant work - involved in community development, involved in running flute bands.

“Loyalist groupings and loyalist community leaders are keeping drugs out of our communities. Full stop. Period. It is not here.

“North Down Defenders is our homeland security. It says it in its name. We’re here to defend North Down – from anybody.”

The interview was broadcast on the Nolan radio show on Friday, prompting East Belfast MLA Naomi Long to say: “If anyone is going to defend the people of north Down or east Belfast it is the PSNI”.