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Northern Ireland news

Alliance bid for review of £80m Social Investment Fund voted down

The awarding of funding to Charter NI. From left, DUP councillor Sharon Skillen, loyalist Dee Stitt, First Minister Arlene Foster, Charter NI chairman Drew Haire and project manager Caroline Birch
David Young, Press Association

AN Assembly bid for an independent review of Stormont's controversial £80 million Social Investment Fund (SIF) has been voted down.

An Alliance motion gained supported from other opposition parties but was defeated by a combination of DUP and Sinn Féin votes.

The workings of the fund have been subject to intense political scrutiny since a furore erupted over an alleged UDA boss's role as a chief executive of a charity awarded a contract to manage £1.7 million from the fund.

Convicted armed robber Dee Stitt, who denies being a UDA chief, faced down calls for his resignation in the wake of a newspaper interview in which he launched a foul-mouthed tirade against the government and claimed his flute band in North Down provided "homeland security".

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson, who tabled the motion, said the issues around the SIF went "much deeper and wider" than Mr Stitt.

"The implementation and operation of the Social Investment Fund has been characterised by secrecy and cronyism," he said.

"Indeed in at least one respect the ongoing association of DUP representatives, including the First Minister (Arlene Foster), with a current paramilitary as chief executive of Charter NI has undermined the credibility of the executive's commitment to tackle paramilitarism.

"In terms of the principle of good governance, quite simply it is a disaster."

DUP Assembly member Christopher Stalford responded in robust fashion, highlighting that opposition MLAs sat alongside DUP and Sinn Fein members on SIF steering groups that decided funding awards.

"The same people, of course, who criticise the scrutiny of this process had a direct hand in the same, and therefore when they come now feigning concern, they had years to (raise those concerns).

"People will see this (motion) for what it is – nothing more than rank political opportunism."

The Alliance call for a review was defeated by 53 votes to 38.

Mrs Foster has faced criticism from political rivals, given she was pictured beside Mr Stitt at a SIF-linked photocall.

The first minister also welcomed initial reports that he had resigned, only for it to subsequently emerge that he had no intention of leaving the post.

Since then, the DUP leader has not joined calls made by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness for Mr Stitt to resign.

The SIF was established by the Stormont Executive during the last assembly mandate to allocate millions of pounds to disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland.

The executive appointed political, community, statutory and business representatives to steering groups – these appointees then, in turn, appointed organisations to oversee and manage the community schemes.

The chosen groups were called "lead partners" and were paid a management fee for their work.

The lead partnership bodies then, in turn, appointed specific groups to deliver the individual projects on the ground.

Controversy surrounds the middle link in the four-tier structure - the relationship between the steering groups and the lead partnership organisations.

Criticisms have been levelled around the fact that organisations represented on the steering groups could appoint themselves to a remunerated lead partnership role, without a tendering process.

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