Co-opted Sinn Féin councillor stayed on SIF group as community representative

Geraldine McAteer remained on the SIF steering group as a community representative after becoming a Sinn Féin councillor 
Geraldine McAteer remained on the SIF steering group as a community representative after becoming a Sinn Féin councillor  Geraldine McAteer remained on the SIF steering group as a community representative after becoming a Sinn Féin councillor 

THE Executive Office has no issue with a Sinn Féin councillor's decision to remain on a Social Investment Fund (SIF) steering group as a 'community' representative.

Geraldine McAteer joined the Belfast West SIF steering group as a community worker in 2013 alongside three Sinn Féin representatives.

However, when she was co-opted onto Belfast City Council in October 2014 to replace Máirtín Ó Muilleoir in the Balmoral ward she did not resign the SIF seat.

The administration of the Executive Office's £80m SIF has faced fierce criticism in recent weeks over its allocation of nearly £2m to an east Belfast community group headed by UDA commander Dee Stitt.

The Irish News highlighted misgivings about the £1.7m award to Charter NI early last month.

However, concern about the funds intensified after Stitt gave an interview to the Guardian in which he criticised the British government in a foul-mouthed tirade and described loyalist flute band North Down Defenders as "our homeland security".

It was reported soon afterwards that Stitt planned to resign from his £35,000-a-year post as Charter NI's chief executive officer.

However, following an internal disciplinary process, he remains in his job – prompting Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to last week call for his resignation.

First Minister Arlene Foster, who was photographed alongside Stitt last month, has said the issue is an internal matter for Charter NI.

The controversy has once again put the governance of the SIF in the spotlight.

Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the committee for standards in public life, described the SIF grant process as "flawed" and said there is a clear conflict of interest in the system.

In relation to Ms McAteer's dual duties, Alliance councillor Emmet McDonagh-Brown said the Sinn Féin representative needed "to pick which role she wants to perform".

"The blurring of lines between decision-makers and beneficiaries is wrong – nobody should mark their own homework," he said.

"I know groups in my constituency who wish to but are unable to bid for lucrative contracts awarded by steering groups because they are not members."

However, the Executive Office appears to have no issue with Ms McAteer's two roles saying, while she may have a political role in south Belfast, her role on the West Belfast SIF is as "a community representative".

"Geraldine McAteer is not, and never has been, a member of the Belfast South steering group," a spokesman said.

"She does sit on the Belfast West group as a community representative."

Meanwhile, it has emerged that Stormont speaker Robin Newton was a member of the East Belfast SIF steering group and sponsored an awards ceremony for Charter NI at Parliament Buildings.

Earlier this year BBC Spotlight revealed that Mr Newton, along with Peter Robinson and others, had been part of a DUP delegation which asked the then Alliance minister Stephen Farry to by-pass normal tender processes and deliver £7m to Charter NI and another company for an IT project in east Belfast. Dr Farry rejected the request.

Mr Newton refused to answer queries from the News Letter about his role in awarding funds to Charter NI and when a request for an urgent oral question was received in relation to the matter last month "on procedural advice".

Alliance leader Naomi Long said it was "important (the speaker) is seen to be fully open, transparent and consistent in his approach.

“I think the speaker needs to consider whether by ignoring media enquiries on this issue and failing to explain in detail both his role and also why he did not recuse himself before taking a decision on the first question, whether damage will be caused to his perceived impartiality and to the wider reputation of the assembly.”