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Executive office accused of closing ranks on Charter funding

Charter NI boss Dee Stitt stands beside First Minister Arlene Foster when details of the £1.7m funding were announced

THE SDLP has accused the Executive Office of "closing ranks" by refusing to discuss allocating £1.7 million of public money to an east Belfast community group at the centre of a funding scandal.

MLA Nichola Mallon said that two oral questions she tabled in the Assembly to discuss the suitability of Charter NI to manage the funding, have been rejected by the Speaker's Office.

First Minister Arlene Foster was photographed standing alongside Charter NI boss Dee Stitt - a convicted armed robber and UDA leader - when the funding was announced in September.

However pressure had been building over his leadership role in Charter NI, which has become politically embarrassing to the DUP.

Stitt remains in post despite both Arlene Foster and DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson publicly stating that they understood he was to stand aside.

But as The Irish News reported last week Stitt is refusing to step down from the £35,000 a year job.

The organisation's board has also released a statement saying they continue to support him.

The board also said it was dealing 'internally' with the fall-out from a controversial interview in the Guardian recently where Stitt described his North Down Defenders flute band as "our Homeland Security".

Ms Mallon, the SDLP spokesperson for communities, has called for the Charter NI funding to be suspended while questions remain about the governance of the organisation.

Earlier this week she submitted a question asking the First and deputy First Minister "if there will now be an urgent review regarding the funding of and governance within Charter NI, pending which, Executive Office funding of the organisation would be suspended".

She said the question was rejected by the Speaker's Office.

Two weeks ago on October 24, Ms Mallon posed a similar question which she also said was refused.

Speaking last night she said the assembly authorities should allow urgent oral questions on the funding "as a matter of critical public interest".

"The SDLP has twice now, via urgent oral questions, tried to call for the immediate suspension of public funding to Charter NI until a full and independent review is conducted into the organisation's governance, including the conduct of its chief executive," she said.

"To date the only thing suspended has been accountability on this issue by an Executive that has closed ranks.

"In those circumstances, when government attempts to frustrate matters of legitimate public interest, there must be an opportunity on the floor of the Assembly for these issues to be raised.

"Ministers must be held robustly to account for their continued funding of Charter NI in the face of unacceptable comments made by the organisation's most senior staff member and other issues emerging in the media".

Ms Mallon added: "Those in positions of influence within the Assembly can be assured, I will not be silenced. This issue will not go away. The public deserve answers.".

The Executive Office declined to comment last night saying it was a matter for the Speaker's Office. The Assembly could not be contacted last night.

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