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Robin Newton denies misleading assembly over ties to Charter NI - but he will not seek re-election

Alleged UDA commander Dee Stitt (left) and assembly speaker Robin Newton 

DUP Speaker Robin Newton has rejected allegations that he misled the Assembly over his links to a UDA-linked community organisation but said he will now not seek re-election to the position.

The East Belfast MLA is under increasing pressure after a BBC Spotlight programme claimed he misled the assembly about the extent of his association with Charter NI.

Powersharing talks at 'critical point' as parties urge DUP's Robin Newton to resign

The community group, which was awarded management of £1.7m of public money for an employability project, is headed up by alleged UDA 'commander' Dee Stitt.

Mr Newton, who is still being paid £87,000-a-year as speaker and MLA despite the assembly not sitting, previously told MLAs that while he offered advice to Charter NI as part of his role as an elected representative he was not an "advisor" to the east Belfast group.

However, a BBC Spotlight investigation into the controversial Social Investment Fund (SIF) has claimed documents dating back several years show he attended board meetings, helped head-hunt board members and lobbied funders on behalf of the organisation, which repeatedly refers to him in minutes as an advisor.

Mr Newton said: "I reject the allegations in the Spotlight programme. I did not mislead the NI Assembly. I have never been appointed to any position with Charter NI. I am not responsible for how others refer to me in their correspondence.

"I will not be a candidate for Speaker in any new Assembly. At the next NI Assembly sitting, I will chair the election of a new Speaker as the first matter of business."

One set of minutes featured in the Spotight programme says that he helped to "steer" the board and did "more than just go to the board meetings".

The Irish News previously reported how Mr Newton lobbied for money for Charter NI just weeks before refusing an urgent assembly question by the SDLPs Nichola Mallon about its funding.

He apologised to assembly members for not delegating the decision given his links to the group.

David Ford, Alliance Deputy Leader,  called for Mr Newton's immediate resignation.

"If these allegations are true, and judging by the documents unveiled on tonight's programme, they are, then the Speaker has no option but to resign his role with immediate effect..." 

"Alliance recognises people with a paramilitary past can play a positive and constructive role in society. But when people with a paramilitary present are doing so, there is a problem. That is the situation with some individuals in Charter NI.

"We have serious concerns about the lack of fairness and effective use of resources being directed towards certain groups, which is why we wrote in the summer to ask for an Audit Office investigation into SIF.

"There also needs to be a revised paramilitary strategy which is backed by all parties and which has clearly defined goals and targets. Only by doing so can we finally remove the poison of paramilitarism from society."

Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs and Sinn Féin Chief Whip Carál Ní Chuilín joined calls for Mr Newton to resign immediatley.

Speaking last night, the SDLP deputy leader said; "It is clear from the documentation unearthed by Spotlight that Mr Newton failed to declare to the assembly and public the full extent of his role with Charter NI when he ruled against my urgent oral question on the funding of public money to this organisation from being heard and answered."

The DUP did not respond to request for a comment last night, but Mr Newton told Spotlight in a statement that he has worked with and offered advice to all sections of the east Belfast community, including community organisations, and some of his contacts have been formal, stronger or longer than others.

It has been claimed that the DUP used the Social Investment Fund, administered by the Executive Office, to help attract votes from hardline loyalist communities.

The BBC put this question to former leader Peter Robinson, said to be the architect of the fund, who responding by saying "Catch yourself on", adding that most political parties had held meetings with former paramilitary leaders at some stage.

In a statement to Spotlight, the Executive Office said: "Appropriate governance procedures are in place to ensure the programme is delivered and managed effectively."

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