The controversy around alleged UDA boss Dee Stitt should not overshadow the positive contribution being made by many loyalist paramilitary figures, Martin McGuinness has said.
Stormont’s deputy first minister said it was important to involve people with past or even current links to the UDA in efforts to achieve reconciliation, as long as they were committed to peace.
He made the remarks in the Assembly after he made clear that projects benefiting from the under-fire Social Investment Fund (SIF) will not lose out because of the Stitt furore.
Mr McGuinness reiterated his call for convicted armed robber Mr Stitt to step down from his role as CEO of SIF-funded east Belfast charity Charter NI following his foul-mouthed tirade against the government and claims his flute band in North Down provided “homeland security”.
Describing Mr Stitt’s comments to the Guardian newspaper as “ridiculous and almost laughable”, the deputy first minister stressed the wider importance of engaging with loyalist paramilitary figures.
“Obviously lessons will have to be learned but, at the same time, I think I have to place on public record that there are many people who were formerly associated with the UDA and there may even be people out there who are associated with the UDA who have made very powerful and positive contributions to peace-making and to the work of reconciliation,” he said.
“And there are many people also within Irish republicanism who also make very positive contributions to peace-making and reconciliation and I think it is important that as we go forward we don’t, if you like, try to use the situation in relation to Mr Stitt to call into question the motivation of many, many good people who for many years, indeed in some instances for decades, who have bought into supporting this peace process.
“So I think cheap shots don’t work – what we have to deal with is the real politik of how we resolve conflict and how we try to involve as many people as possible in the resolution of conflict.
“And if that means working with people who were former paramilitaries and who might even be associated with the UDA - as in the allegation that has been made in the course of recent times - but who are making a positive contribution, and who are not involved in violence or criminality of any description, then I think it’s very important that we do that.”
The Sinn Fein veteran was challenged repeatedly on SIF and Charter NI as he fielded questions in the Assembly on Monday, the majority during an urgent oral question tabled by the SDLP’s Nichola Mallon.
The urgent oral question was heard hours after Assembly speaker Robin Newton apologised for not recusing himself on a decision to reject a previous question tabled by Ms Mallon.
“There was concern within different projects in different areas and different steering groups that finances as a result of the controversy over what’s happening in east Belfast would be halted to other groups,” said Mr McGuinness.
“I want to absolutely dispel any notion whatsoever that we are going to call a halt to any other of these SIF projects.”
He added: “In this one instance, yes, we have a controversy and the controversy resides around basically in my view the ridiculous and almost laughable interview given my Mr Stitt to the Guardian newspaper, which did bring him into public ridicule and, by doing so, created massive problems for Charter NI.”
People Before Profit MLA Eamonn McCann claimed Mr Stitt’s alleged paramilitary links was the reason he had been appointed to such a job.
“Isn’t it the case that he was employed in this position at public expense not despite his paramilitary role but because of his paramilitary role,” he said.
“And this reflects British government policy, effectively endorsed by the Executive, which amounts to paying public money to buy paramilitaries off.”
NI Green Party leader Steven Agnew said: “It’s intolerable that those who wish to wear suits by day and balaclavas by night be paid out of public funds.”