Dee Stitt controversy 'does not detract from campaign against paramilitaries'
Controversy surrounding an alleged UDA leader's role within a publicly-funded charity does not detract from a new campaign to tackle organised crime, Stormont's Justice Minister has said.
Although the furore over Dee Stitt's role as chief executive of Charter NI has been unhelpful, Claire Sugden said it would not frustrate Executive efforts to eradicate paramilitarism.
The Minister said: "Yes, the negative publicity around Charter NI has been unhelpful but it won't undermine the campaign that we are doing."
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).
Its chief executive, convicted armed robber Stitt, who denies being a UDA chief, has faced down repeated calls for his resignation in the wake of a newspaper interview in which he launched a foul-mouthed tirade against the British government and claimed his flute band in North Down provided "homeland security".
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has said he believes Mr Stitt should step down while First Minister Arlene Foster has said it would be unlawful for her to direct that he be sacked from the £35,000-a-year post.
Ms Sugden declined to be drawn on the matter.
"The negative publicity around Dee Stitt has been completely unhelpful," she added. "I think Charter NI as an organisation is doing good work within their community and we need to maintain our focus on that.
"He needs to have that conversation with his board of directors to decide what's best for the organisation and ultimately what is best for the community they serve."
The Minister was speaking at the launch of a new £530,000 advertising campaign to raise public awareness about the dangers of buying counterfeit goods.
The hard-hitting advertisement, which will be shown on television and in cinemas, shows how money spent on fake goods goes towards lining the pockets of organised criminals.
It has been launched as part of the Fresh Start Agreement and the Executive action plan on tackling paramilitary activity.
Ms Sugden said: "The campaign is part of the Executive's much wider drive to rid Northern Ireland of the scourge of paramilitarism.
"It stems from the Fresh Start Agreement which led to a detailed report by a three-person independent panel and an agreed Executive action plan.
"Work this year includes additional funding for forensic science, work to reduce re-offending and speeding up the delivery of justice. We are also working closely with law enforcement agencies to develop a range of detailed initiatives."
Police have estimated that there are currently 138 organised crime groups operating within Northern Ireland, who are involved in the supply of counterfeit goods including make-up, toiletries, alcohol, car parts and toys.
Some 67 gangs are under active investigation, and in recent months 28 have been dismantled, with members put in jail, while 96 others have been frustrated or disrupted.
The groups include home-grown loyalist and republican paramilitaries as well as those from further afield, according to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
Ms Sugden has said there are no quick fixes to the problem of ridding society of organised crime gangs and warned that the Executive cannot do it on their own.
She added: "This requires political, policing and community support.
"People in Northern Ireland need to make a choice, turn a blind eye to criminality or take a stand and say no to those who are set on inflicting harm on our communities."
Meanwhile, Detective Superintendent Gary Reid, from the PSNI's Reactive and Organised Crime unit, said more must be done to dispel the myth that buying fake goods is a victimless crime.
He said: "Police need the support of the community to help tackle this hidden crime. It is not harmless and there are real victims as a consequence of people's actions in buying such products.
"We hope that this campaign will help educate people about the ramifications of the harm caused as a result of inadvertently supporting organised crime gangs through what might seem harmless purchases."