Stormont Speaker will recuse himself due to role in Charter NI funding

(l-r) Councillor Sharon Skillen; Dee Stitt, CEO Charter NI; First Minister Arlene Foster; Drew Haire, Chairperson Charter NI; Caroline Birch, Project Manager
(l-r) Councillor Sharon Skillen; Dee Stitt, CEO Charter NI; First Minister Arlene Foster; Drew Haire, Chairperson Charter NI; Caroline Birch, Project Manager

Amid growing controversy about how the Executive gave public money to an organisation headed by an alleged UDA commander, the Assembly Speaker has declined to spell out his role in the decision.

However, Robin Newton last night said that due to the part which he played in the SIF fund in east Belfast he will delegate to his deputy speakers all decisions about Assembly business relating to that issue.

Assembly Speaker Robin Newton

Assembly Speaker Robin Newton

Yesterday the former UK standards watchdog Sir Alistair Graham savaged the procedures put in place by the DUP and Sinn Fein which saw £1.7 million given to Charter NI, a body run by a man who has been described by BBC Spotlight as a UDA commander.

Some of the public money from the Executive’s flagship Social Investment Fund (SIF) – which was meant to tackle poverty – has been given out in a way which is radically different to that undertaken under normal rules for government spending, with no public procurement to give other organisations a fair chance to apply for it.

And the Nolan Show yesterday revealed that members of the SIF steering groups – many of whom are appointed by the DUP and Sinn Fein – have been allowed to allocate public funding to their own organisations.

Speaking on the Nolan Show, Sir Alistair said: “It’s absurd and it defies all rules of transparency in the use of public money and the awarding of public contracts.”

He added: “it has the feeling of being dominated by self-interest, rather than by the wider public interest”.

Yesterday Arlene Foster again defended the SIF scheme, while Martin McGuinness pointedly told reporters that the Executive is not accountable to Sir Alastair Graham, but is accountable to our electorate.

Mr Newton – a DUP MLA for East Belfast prior to being appointed Assembly Speaker in May – was a member of the East Belfast Steering group.

In 2014, he sponsored an awards ceremony fro Charter NI at Stormont, something which allowed the group to use Assembly facilities.

And earlier this year BBC Spotlight revealed that Mr Newton, along with Peter Robinson and others, had been part of a DUP delegation which asked the then Alliance minister Stephen Farry to by-pass normal tender processes and deliver £7m to Charter NI and another company for an IT project in East Belfast. Dr Farry rejected the request.

There is no suggestion that Mr Newton has acted improperly, but the News Letter wanted to ask him about the process behind the funding decision.

We phoned Mr Newton yesterday morning to ask him about the nature of his involvement in the Charter NI decision. The Speaker said that he could not talk and, when asked to give a time when it would be convenient to speak, he hung up.

When the Assembly was asked to pass on a message to Mr Newton, it came back with a statement: “Like other Members, the Speaker is elected to represent a constituency and has to deal with local issues on the ground.

“However, unlike other Members, he also has to be mindful of his independence and impartiality as Speaker.

“He therefore cannot become involved in the public political debate on issues which he may have to preside over on the floor of the Chamber. Consequently, he will be making no comment on issues around the Social Investment Fund.”

Following further questions as to whether Mr Newton would recuse himself from Assembly business in which SIF is discussed, the Assembly last night said: “The Speaker has been cautious about any perception of conflict arising between his constituency interests and standard procedural decisions he may be required to take.

“When a first Urgent Oral Question was received in relation to Charter NI on 24 October, the Speaker accepted the procedural advice on that occasion but made it clear to his office that for future such questions in relation to SIF in East Belfast, it would be prudent for him to delegate.

“A second Urgent Question was then tabled on 8 November and the Speaker delegated the decision to the Principal Deputy Speaker [Caitriona Ruane] for her to consider the procedural advice.

“Should any further procedural issues relating to Assembly business around the Social Investment Fund in East Belfast require consideration, the Speaker intends to again use the ability to delegate that is given to him under Standing Order 5 (2).”

Stormont: This is what people wanted

Last night the Executive responded to Sir Alistair Graham’s hard-hitting criticism of the Social Investment Fund process.

In a lengthy statement, Stormont Castle said that the process had been developed out of public consultation which found that 72% of the 328 respondents to the consultation preferred the option which ultimately was implemented by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.

It said: “The identification of a lead partner organisation from within the Steering Group membership was designed to ensure projects are delivered in line with the wishes of the community as expressed in the community consultation on proposals for local projects that was carried out by Steering Groups in each SIF zone.

“Where necessary expertise or capability did not exist on the steering group, other agencies were identified as the lead partner (eg local councils). Of the 46 projects that have lead partners, 20 have lead partners from within steering groups and 26 have lead partners that were not members of steering groups at the time of appointment.

“All projects have a business case approved by the Executive Office which has carried out checks on all lead partners to ensure they have the necessary capability to manage public money.

“All steering groups have a process in place to manage any conflicts of interest. Where a conflict was declared, the Steering Group member was not permitted to be involved in any discussion or decision around the prioritisation of the proposal.

“This process was in place in respect of East Belfast.”

It added that while there was no procurement for the appointment of the ‘lead partners’, there was procurement when those bodies appointed “delivery agents or contractors”.

Why is McGuinness calling on Stitt to quitt, asks ex-RUC man

A former member of the Western SIF Steering Group, retired RUC detective Norman Baxter, has questioned the logic of Martin McGuinness’s call for Dee Stitt to resign.

Mr Stitt told the News Letter: “Whilst not fully aware of the situation in East Belfast, I’m quite amazed that the deputy First Minister with his history of association with armed groups, would ask another person linked to armed groups to consider his position on the basis that he is linked to an armed group.

“On that logic, the deputy First Minister himself should consider his position.”

Speaking of his former role, Mr Baxter said: “When I was on it, I thought it was functioning well, but it was designed to ensure that both sections of the community received an equal proportion of the money.

“My experience, recommending the new hall for the cathedral in Enniskillen, was a positive one and it was awarded on merit because it met all the criteria.

“But I have no real insight into how the other tier [out of which Charter was funded] worked.”