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Anger as Brokenshire signs off on £25m for disgraced SIF

Loyalist Dee Stitt of Charter NI pictured with former first minister Arlene Foster after the east Belfast group was awarded a £1.7 management contract

THERE was anger last night after the secretary of state rubber stamped more than £25m for the controversial Social Investment Fund (SIF).

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood demanded to know if funds for the "universally disgraced" Stormont scheme had been prioritised over hospital waiting lists, teachers and victims of institutional abuse.

As James Brokenshire last night introduced budget legislation for the north at Westminster, it emerged that funds are still being channelled to the community-based initiative, which was originally expected to cost £80m.

Last year it emerged that the bill could rise to more than £93m.

Launched by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, the fund was designed to help projects in disadvantaged areas.

However, it became mired in controversy after it emerged that an east Belfast group headed by alleged UDA 'commander' Dee Stitt was awarded a £1.7m management contract.

In yesterday's budget, moved in the absence of a Stormont executive, Mr Brokenshire made two allocations to SIF – £11.4m from the resource budget and £14.2m from the capital budget.

According to Mr Eastwood, the secretary of state effectively rubber stamped an allocation earmarked by former Stormont finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir.

The SDLP leader claimed the DUP and Sinn Féin previously had an opportunity to close down SIF but money continued to flow.

"The operation and management of SIF has been universally disgraced," he said.

"People on hospital waiting lists, schoolteachers and victims of institutional abuse deserve to know if any minister prioritised this scheme over them."

However, Mr Ó Muilleoir insisted his party had highlighted "abuses of state funding" in loyalist areas including abuses of SIF funding.

"The SDLP has voted against every budget since 2007 and in that period have failed to produce a credible alternative," the South Belfast MLA said.

"If they have issues with Mr Brokenshire’s budget, they should raise those with Mr Brokenshire."

Yesterday's budget saw health spending rise by 5.4 per cent, while Mr Brokenshire also said the first £50m of a £1bn deal agreed under a DUP-Tory pact will be released for health and education.

He also announced that a former clerk of the assembly will report back next month on the case for cutting MLAs' pay.

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