Arlene Foster has 'no regrets' over being pictured with a UDA commander

Loyalist Dee Stitt alongside First Minister Arlene Foster last month
Loyalist Dee Stitt alongside First Minister Arlene Foster last month Loyalist Dee Stitt alongside First Minister Arlene Foster last month

FIRST Minister Arlene Foster has said she has no regrets about being pictured alongside the convicted armed robber at the centre of a row over nearly £2m of government funding.

The DUP leader was photographed last month beside self-confessed UDA commander Dee Stitt, who is the chief executive of Charter NI, an organisation delivering a Stormont-funded employability project in east Belfast.

Criticism of the Executive Office's £1.7m award escalated last week after Stitt appeared in a video interview making a foul-mouthed attack on the British government, claiming it did not "give a f***" about Northern Ireland.

He also described the loyalist band, the North Down Defenders, as “our homeland security” and added “we are here to defend north Down from anybody”.

There were reports earlier this week that Stitt was going to stand down from the £35,000-a-year role.

In an interview with The Irish News, Mrs Foster said she did not regret standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the convicted armed robber.

"No I don't (regret the photograph) because we went down to celebrate the fact that Charter NI, which has been in existence for 10 years, had won a contract to deliver employability services into the community in east Belfast," the DUP leader said.

She described the Belfast East Employability Project as a "very good programme", which in common with a number of Social Investment Fund initiatives was "developed from the ground up".

Mrs Foster said whom Charter NI appointed as chief executive was a matter for its board but she said it was her understanding that Stitt was due to resign.

"I understand that's going to change and I think that's good because Dee Stitt has become the story rather than the scheme," she said.

When asked whether Stitt was a good role model for the young men the scheme was trying to help, the first minister responded: "People are on a journey in these communities, I think it's important that we encourage people to leave paramilitarism behind."

But SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie said Mrs Foster's response was "vintage DUP".

"I would ask if the deputy first minister shares that benign view of Charter NI," she said.

"I would repeat my call for this funding to be withdrawn due to this organisation's association with paramilitarism."

Alliance MLA Stephen Farry said the first minister must have known who Dee Stitt was before the photo was taken "and clearly does know now".

"The DUP have been actively seeking to fund Charter NI through a range of means over the past number of years," he said.

"The continued arrogance of the DUP and its leader to continue to seek to defend the indefensible, and the failure of some others in authority to sufficiently call them out on it, risks undermining the credibility of the Fresh Start agreement commitment to tackle and disband paramilitaries."

Ms Ritchie also criticised Secretary of State James Brokenshire for failing to state whether he believed the Executive Office's funding award was appropriate.

Interviewed on BBCNI's The View, Mr Brokenshire consistently dodged the question, insisting it was a matter for the Executive Office.

The South Down representative said she found it "amazing" that the secretary of state did not have an opinion on the matter.

"I can't understand why the secretary of state, as a representative of the British cabinet, cannot express an opinion on this important matter," she said.

"Surely he must have something to say about such a large amount of money being given to an organisation with links to the UDA."