Northern Ireland news

Robin Newton lobbied for money for Charter NI weeks before ruling against assembly debate

Robin Newton was appointed assembly speaker last May

UNDER fire Stormont speaker Robin Newton was lobbying for money for ex-prisoners’ charity Charter NI just weeks before ruling against an urgent debate on the organisation’s funding.

As pressure mounts on Mr Newton to resign over his much-maligned handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive debate in Assembly, The Irish News has received a copy of a letter which for the first time shows that Mr Newton was lobbying on behalf of Charter NI while he was speaker.

In the correspondence dated 14th September 2016, Mr Newton wrote to Anne Connolly, chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, asking for a meeting to discuss “pupil underachievement”.

Mr Newton asked to bring along Drew Haire, the chairman of Charter NI and a senior member of an East Belfast primary school.

The east Belfast MLA has come under increasing scrutiny since it emerged he was named by Charter NI as an adviser.

When Mr Newton became speaker in May, a role which requires him to be impartial, he failed to declare his links to Charter NI.

The charity has come under fire because it receives public funding yet its chief executive is Dee Stitt, an alleged UDA boss.

In the autumn, Mr Newton caused outcry after blocking two assembly questions tabled by SDLP politician Nichola Mallon on Charter NI, the very organisation he was helping.

He later apologised unreservedly to fellow assembly members for not delegating his decision to refuse a question on the controversy surrounding Charter NI.

The SDLP’s Nichola Mallon said: 'This correspondence clearly shows that just a month before the Speaker ruled against my urgent oral question, based on public interest, in the Assembly about the funding of Charter NI through the Social Investment Fund, he was trying to arrange meetings for that same organisation to secure Policing Board funding.”

The request for a meeting, the Policing Board confirmed, was to discuss a proposal from Charter NI for funding from the Police Property Fund, which distributes money seized during police investigations to charity.

The meeting did not take place. A spokesperson for the Policing Board said that Ms Connolly wrote back to Mr Newton explaining that it would not be appropriate to meet Charter NI because the policy around the fund and the allocation of the money had not been agreed upon.

John Dallat, Stormont’s former deputy speaker and acting speaker, called for Robin Newton to resign. “I think his position is untenable.”

He said it was "unimaginable" that the speaker of any parliament across the world would block a question to a minister which dealt with something as serious as government funding to an organisation with paramilitary links.

In Mr Newton’s east Belfast constituency Charter NI is overseeing the delivery of an employment scheme as part of the Stormont Executive's contentious Social Investment Fund (SIF).

Mr Newton sat on a steering group that awarded the £1.7 million contract to Charter NI. He told the Assembly in November he had also provided advice to the charity as part of constituency duties, though he insisted he never held an official position as adviser.

Last month, it emerged that Mr Newton had been campaigning for £90,000 from the Police Property Fund to be directed to Charter NI in March - just weeks before he was named speaker.

A DUP spokesperson said: "Robin Newton MLA has helped Charter as part of his East Belfast constituency duties as we would expect him to do and as he has helped out many other community groups across East Belfast.

He has made a statement to the Assembly on these issues and indicated he was reviewing his constituency duties. Such issues are a matter for the Speaker's Office."

Robin Newton timeline

March - campaigns for £90,000 from the Police Property Fund to be directed to Charter NI

7th May - Charter NI refer to “our advisor Robin Newton MLA” in a Facebook post

11th May – elected Assembly Speaker.

June - attended Charter NI volunteer celebration

14th September – wrote a letter to chairman of NI Policing Board asking for a meeting with Charter NI to discuss pupil underachievement

24th October – blocks a question from the SDLP on whether there would be an urgent review of the funding of Charter NI,

8th November - blocks another question from the SDLP

21st November – apologises to fellow assembly members for not delegating the question

19th December - urged to reconsider his role as speaker after chaotic scenes in the Assembly when members staged two mass walk outs of the chamber over the DUP’s handling of the RHI scandal.

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