Northern Ireland news

Stormont speaker among those to declare conflict of interest

Speaker Robin Newton acted as an advisor to Charter NI while also sitting on the SIF steering group.

A DAMNING audit office report into the allocation of public money through the controversial Social Investment Fund (SIF) pointed to widespread and largely undocumented conflicts of interest.

The report released on Wednesday by Auditor General Kieran Donnelly revealed eighteen conflicts of interest between steering groups and community organisations who were awarded million of pounds of public money.

In all those cases there were direct links that where not properly dealt with or documented and minutes were not kept of meetings during which it was claimed conflicts were declared.

The Audit Office identified three conflicts of interest which were not declared at all.

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In 2016, when The Irish News first revealed conflicts on SIF steering groups, former Stormont speaker and DUP MLA Robin Newton admitted that he gave advice to Charter NI in east Belfast and had sat in on its board meetings.

He also sat on the East Belfast SIF steering group as one of the political representatives recommending which projects should receive funds.

The steering group recommended that Charter NI be awarded £1.7m for an employability scheme for which Gems NI were appointed as the 'lead partners' in the project.

The organisation was headed up at the time by loyalist Dee Stitt. While the Co Down man still works for Charter NI, he stepped down earlier this year as CEO after coming under increasing pressure following his arrest by the Paramilitary Crime Task Force.

Arlene Foster explaining in 2016 why she posed for a photpgraph alognside Dee Stitt:

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In November 2016, Mr Newton was forced to apologise to the assembly for failing publicise his links to Charter NI when ruling against an urgent debate on its funding.

As speaker, he had rejected an urgent oral question request from SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon relating to the group's funding.

The SDLP referred the speaker to Stormont's standards watchdog and requested "an urgent investigation into his declarations of interest, or lack thereof, in relation to Charter NI".

A spokesperson for the Executive office said last night that the department "accepts all recommendations and will respond formally through a memorandum of reply setting out how it will implement the recommendations going forward".

A DUP spokesperson said: "The NIAO report into the Social Investment Fund has raised a number of issues and put forward recommendations which must be acted upon to ensure such problems do not arise in the future".

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Leading loyalist Dee Stitt has stood down as CEO of Charter NI but remains an employee. Picture Mal McCann.

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