Northern Ireland news

Video: Martin McGuinness says Dee Stitt should 'consider stepping aside'

First Minister Arlene Foster explains why she posed for a photograph alongside Dee Stitt. The interview took place earlier this month

THE DUP remained silent last night over UDA commander Dee Stitt as Martin McGuinness said he should "consider stepping aside" from his role at Charter NI.

The Irish News revealed yesterday that the north Down loyalist had returned to his post as chief executive of the east Belfast community group, despite claims that he was to resign from the £35,000-a-year publicly-funded job.

The organisation was last month awarded £1.7m of Social Investment Fund (SIF) money by the Stormont Executive for an employability scheme, signed off by the first and deputy first ministers.

Stitt had been under intense political pressure to quit and was on leave from his job following an interview with the Guardian newspaper during which he made a foul-mouthed attack on the British government and described his loyalist flute band as "homeland security".

However, the convicted armed robber returned to work this week, with a senior loyalist source saying he had the support of the Charter NI board and also retained the full support of the UDA in east Belfast.

Charter NI released a statement yesterday backing their CEO.

"Our chief executive recognised his error of judgement and apologised immediately for the content of the interview. We have now completed an internal review process in line with our company procedures and best employment practice."

However, Deputy First Minister Martin Mr McGuinness said the Bangor-based loyalist should consider his position in light of the "reputational damage being done to worthwhile social investment projects".

The SIF has awarded £80m to community organisations across Northern Ireland.

"It is clear that the controversy surrounding Mr Stitt is presenting real difficulties to the reputation and efforts of Charter NI," he said.

"That is unfortunate given the good work which Charter NI and indeed the wider Social Investment Fund is involved in.

"In the interests of both, I believe Mr Stitt should now consider stepping aside."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the statement did not go far enough and called for the Executive to suspend Charter NI funding pending a review of practices.

"The Fresh Start agreement was supposed to tackle the insidious influence of paramilitary criminality in communities across the north.

"And yet now, far from taking down paramilitaries, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister continue to provide millions of pounds of public money to an organisation which is led by a self-confessed UDA boss.

DUP councillor Sharon Skillen, loyalist Dee Stitt, First Minister Arlene Foster, Charter NI chairman Drew Haire and project manager Caroline Birch following the announcement of £1.7m of public funding for the east Belfast group

"We are continuing to call for an immediate suspension of public funding for Charter NI pending a review into its governance, including the role of Dee Stitt. That is the only ethical position. The Deputy First Minister should commit to that."

The DUP said yesterday it had no further comment to make.

Previously both party leader and Arlene Foster and MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had said they understood Stitt would announce his resignation.

The Executive Office also said it has "no further comment to make at this stage".

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