Leading article

Advantage Dee Stitt

Since it was first revealed in this newspaper back in September that the notorious loyalist Dee Stitt was the chief executive of a group which had received a £1.7m grant through public funding, a definitive response from Stormont's Executive Office has been eagerly awaited.

The saga has taken a series of twists since then, with Stitt, a prominent UDA member and convicted gunman drawing further attention to himself through outrageous claims that a loyalist band which he also controls was "our homeland security" who were "here to defend North Down from anybody".

He later took a three-week break from his role with east Belfast-based Charter NI, with various senior DUP figures implying that his permanent departure was imminent, but he still returned in November and has subsequently given no hint that he is prepared to voluntarily move on.

The spotlight was placed even more directly on Mr Stitt last week through an intervention from the assistant chief constable, Stephen Martin, suggesting that unnamed individuals in Charter NI did indeed have UDA connections and had taken part in paramilitary activity within the last year.

Mr Martin's stance was quickly endorsed by the chief constable, Geroge Hamilton, as an `accurate assessment' of the PSNI's position on the matter.

Mr Hamilton said that some positive work had been carried out by Charter NI at an operational and community level, something which has never been disputed, but `it remains our view that an individual or individuals connected to that organisation continue to be associated with paramilitarism.'

The views of the senior officers appeared to be absolutely unequivocal but, after a meeting with Mr Hamilton at Stormont on Monday, the Executive Office issued a statement which was completely different in tone.

It said ministers had been assured by the PSNI that there were "no concerns" over the work of Charter NI and that police would continue to work with the community organisation.

The Executive Office statement went on to say that a clear choice had to be made between paramilitarism and community work, and there could be no acceptance of or ambivalence towards illegal activity, but the public could only have been left perturbed by the sequence of events.

Mr Stitt remains in his post, with his salary still provided by the tax-payer, and is sending out a message that, despite what the leadership of the PSNI may say, he regards himself as untouchable.

A high stakes struggle is being played out between the authorities and Mr Stitt, and, after the developments of recent days, he is entitled to believe that he is winning.

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