ANALYSIS: Damning SIF report will only add to public disillusionment with Stormont

Leading loyalist Dee Stitt who was CEO of Charter NI. Picture by Mal McCann.

SINCE its inception the Social Investment Fund was always controversial.

Originally announced by Peter Robinson and the late Martin McGuinness it was intended to plough £90 million into areas of social need.

However, the system for allocation of funds, involving steering groups, packed full of community figures linked to both Sinn Féin and the DUP, led to criticisms.

Some of those who sat on the steering groups also worked for groups that were later awarded huge financial windfalls.

When Arlene Foster was pictured in 2016 standing next to high profile loyalist Dee Stitt, during the announcement of the allocation of £1.7 million of public money to UDA-linked Charter NI, the fund was once again put under the spotlight.

Video: Arlene Foster explains why she posed for the photograph:

Dee Stitt (second from left) with Arlene Foster in 2016 during an announcement of £1.7 million of SIF funding to Charter NI. Also pictured are DUP councillor Sharon Skillen, Charter NI chairman Drew Haire and project manager Caroline Birch.

Stitt, a controversial figure, was alleged to still be involved in loyalist criminality, he was arrested earlier this year by the Paramilitary Crime Task Force, and while he still works for the east Belfast community group he is no longer its chief executive.

Today's audit report goes even further than previous criticisms of the fund.

It found a shambolic process with no consistency in how projects were identified, minute taking that was either non existent or missing key points, huge management costs for 'lead partner' groups and even duplicate payments that were never recouped.

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Conflicts of interest were either not declared or no record kept when they were. There were over spends amounting to millions of pounds on some projects and others were not being run as they were originally intended.

There was praise for some worthy Social Investment Fund (SIF)recipients, a Derry-based employment scheme, a youth centre in Lisburn and a west Belfast project targetting young offenders.

However, they do not deflect from the shockingly bad management and oversight of the SIF fund, which the Executive Office will now be required to overhaul.

More immediately the audit report will only add to growing public disillusionment with devolved government, coming as it does on the tail of shocking allegations of bad governance heard during the RHI inquiry.

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