Political news

Pressure mounts on Robin Newton amid fresh calls for assembly probe

Robin Newton was named in minutes as an 'advisor' to Charter NI but has denied holding the role

SINN Féin has lodged a complaint with the assembly following claims that Speaker Robin Newton misled MLAs about the extent of his association with Charter NI.

But the party has been criticised by the SDLP, which last year lodged a similar grievance with Stormont's standards watchdog when it first emerged that Mr Newton had given advice to the UDA-linked community organisation.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood wrote to Cathal Boylan, the Sinn Féin chair of Stormont's Standards and Privileges Committee, in November 2016 calling for a review of the speaker's declaration of interests.

The complaint was made after it was revealed that Mr Newton had provided advice to Charter NI and sat on a steering group that awarded the east Belfast group a £1.7 million management contract.

The DUP MLA insisted at the time that he was never an official adviser.

However, minutes of Charter NI meetings uncovered in a BBC Spotlight investigation described Mr Newton as an 'advisor'.

Documents also suggested he attended board meetings, helped head-hunt board members and lobbied funders on behalf of the east Belfast organisation.

Mr Newton, who is still being paid £87,000-a-year as speaker and MLA despite Stormont not sitting, has rejected claims he misled assembly members by not declaring the full extent of his association with Charter NI, which is headed by alleged UDA 'commander' Dee Stitt.

It was reported last night that police are to investigate whether the East Belfast MLA broke the law by not declaring an interest in Charter NI.

"Police can confirm that a complaint has been received following the Spotlight programme on Tuesday night and this is currently being reviewed," the PSNI said.

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon yesterday called on the head of the civil service to publish key documents relating to the Social Investment Fund (SIF), under which Charter NI has been funded.

The North Belfast MLA said any SIF steering group declarations of interest and minutes should be made public.

"The critical flaws at the heart of the Social Investment Fund relate to the complete failure to manage perceived conflicts of interest where they arise," she said.

"It defies belief that the system allowed steering groups, comprised of political representatives and community group members, to allocate significant sums of public money to groups which their members were connected with – that creates suspicion."

Ms Mallon said she had called for transparency around SIF last December but had been ignored.

"At that time Sinn Féin and the DUP blocked an independent review of the entire Social Investment Fund process," she said.

A Sinn Féin spokesman said that since January the party had been consistent in calling for Mr Newton's resignation, including tabling a motion of no confidence in the assembly.

In relation to the party's complaint to the assembly chief executive, West Belfast MLA Alex Maskey said: "We believe that Robin Newton's position as speaker is completely untenable in light of the serious allegations in a BBC Spotlight programme and that he should resign with immediate effect.

"The speaker should be above reproach and independently accountable to the political institutions."

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