Arlene Foster defended her stance in the controversy surrounding Dee Stitt’s role as chief executive of Charter NI as she appeared before the Assembly scrutiny committee.
Addressing the wider issue of people allegedly actively engaged in paramilitarism sitting on publicly funded organisations, the DUP leader said anyone involved in such criminal activities should be arrested, insisting no-one was “untouchable”.
Convicted armed robber Stitt, who denies being a UDA chief, faced down calls for his resignation in the wake of a newspaper interview in which he launched a foul-mouthed tirade against the Government and claimed his flute band in north Down provided “homeland security”.
Charter NI is overseeing the delivery of a £1.7 million employment scheme in east Belfast as part of the Stormont Executive’s £80 million Social Investment Fund (SIF).
Mrs Foster’s role in the furore has been the subject of intense public scrutiny, given she was pictured beside Mr Stitt at a SIF-linked photocall.
She also welcomed initial reports that he had resigned – only for it to subsequently emerge that he had no intention of leaving post.
Since then, the DUP leader has not joined calls made by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness for Mr Stitt to resign.
“I thought he had stood down, because that was reported to me, he clearly hasn’t,” Mrs Foster told members of the Executive Office committee.
“I think that Mr Stitt made some very controversial statements that were wrong and, as I understand it, the board of Charter NI have taken action over that in terms of disciplinary action.”
She said it was not for her to interfere in such proceedings.
“Can you imagine I said to Charter NI ‘I want you to sack your chief executive’,” she said.
“Do think that would be legal? Because I tell you now it would not be legal.”
Earlier in her appearance at the committee, Mrs Foster was asked a wider question about those with alleged paramilitary links becoming involved in publicly funded bodies.
“We don’t go through all members of staff and ask them what their previous associations were – we want to encourage people to move away from anything they have been involved with in the past,” she replied.
“And if they are engaged in activities today then they should be arrested for those activities, and I want to say that very clearly – the police should arrest them and they should interview them and, if there is evidence, bring it before the court.
“I don’t think that anyone should be given any comfort in terms of thinking that they are untouchable.
“No-one should be untouchable. Everyone should be equal before the law and under the law.”
Mr McGuinness, who was appearing alongside Mrs Foster to answer questions on the proposed programme for government and specific plans to tackle paramilitarism, reiterated his call for Mr Stitt to resign.
He expressed concern the loyalist’s “ridiculous” remarks in his interview with the Guardian were “overshadowing” the work of the SIF in disadvantaged communities across Northern Ireland.
“If he really does care about the local community then I hope he will take a decision that lays to rest this controversy,” he said.