Northern Ireland

Video: DUP and Sinn Féin walk out during Social Investment Fund debate

Belfast City Hall
Belfast City Hall

THE DUP and Sinn Féin have been criticised for walking out of a discussion on the controversial Social Investment Fund (SIF).

Dozens of councillors left a Belfast City Council meeting as a motion was raised calling for learnings to be taken from serious flaws in the Stormont scheme.

It is the third time in recent months that councillors have walked out of a meeting when issue has been raised.

The DUP and Sinn Féin say councillors excused themselves due to conflicts of interest, but rival parties have dismissed this and accused them of avoiding debate.

SIF was set up by the Stormont executive to provide support to projects in disadvantaged communities, but the multi-million-pound fund has faced criticism over a lack of transparency.

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An audit office report in November found a "very concerning" lack of governance and serious conflicts of interest in how funding was allocated.

In 2016, SIF made headlines after a UDA-linked organisation was awarded a £1.7 million employment scheme contract.

On Monday night, SDLP councillor Dónal Lyons raised a motion which urged the council to "review the SIF report and apply any learning from it to relevant council funds".

Sinn Féin and DUP councillors left the room while the matter was discussed before returning.

Mr Lyons accused the parties of showing "contempt for even the most basic levels of public accountability".

"It is simply ludicrous to argue that the deeply flawed process created for SIF, of steering groups comprised of political representatives and chosen others, now prevents the discussion of its critical failings," he said.

"It's beyond ludicrous to say that this process somehow prevents us from discussing how to improve Belfast City Council's approach to funding."

Legal advice provided to the council about the SIF motion advised that councillors declaring a non-pecuniary interest were not required to absent themselves from meetings, the SDLP said.

The DUP insisted councillors were leaving the room due to a conflict of interest. A raft of councillors had declared interests ahead of the issue being raised.

A DUP spokesman said there has been an "expansion of what could come under the definition of a conflict of interest for councillors", citing UUP councillor Jim Rodgers being sanctioned for not declaring an interest in two groups that received council funding.

"At a recent meeting with the National Association of Councillors the advice from the Ombudsmans' Office was summarised as, 'if in doubt, get out'," a spokesman said.

"On SIF, this has created significant practical difficulties leaving many councillors who were involved at different stages and levels of that programme with an individual judgment to make."

Sinn Féin did not respond to requests for a comment.

Read more: Damning audit report on Social Investment Fund finds a shocking lack of transparency