Northern Ireland

Charter NI: Parties call for Newton to resign as speaker

Robin Newton
Image caption Robin Newton has previously denied having a role in Charter NI

Four of Northern Ireland's five main parties have called for the resignation of Assembly speaker Robin Newton.

Mr Newton has rejected claims he misled the Northern Ireland Assembly about the true nature of his role with a UDA-linked community organisation.

The allegation was made in a BBC Spotlight programme on Tuesday night.

The investigation revealed that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MLA has had a role with the group Charter NI that he had not declared.

Mr Newton remains the Assembly speaker, with an annual salary is £87,500, in spite of Stormont not being operational.

However, Sinn Féin has said his position as speaker is now "completely untenable".

The Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and the Alliance Party have also called for Mr Newton to go.

His last official function as speaker was in January, when Northern Ireland's power-sharing Executive collapsed..

Image caption Charter NI, a community-based organisation in east Belfast, was awarded a £1.7m grant by the executive

He has said he will not be a candidate for speaker if and when the Assembly returns.

"At the next Northern Ireland Assembly sitting, I will chair the election of a new speaker as the first matter of business," he added.

Former Assembly standards commissioner Douglas Bain, whose job was to investigate complaints against MLAs, said members who fail to declare an interest could be guilty of a criminal offence under the Northern Ireland Act.

'Never been appointed'

The Spotlight investigation revealed that the East Belfast MLA was speaker at the same time as he sat on steering group that awarded Charter NI the management contract for a £1.7m employability scheme.

That came from Stormont's Social Investment Fund (SIF).

Charter NI also received a £226,000 fee for the work.

In a statement Mr Newton said: "I have never been appointed to any position with Charter NI."

Last October, he blocked an assembly question about Charter NI amid public concern the group was receiving Stormont Social Investment Fund money, while its CEO Dee Stitt continued to have links to the UDA.

Soon after, it emerged that Charter NI's Facebook site referred to Mr Newton as the group's adviser, a relationship the speaker had not mentioned when blocking the question about the group.

He had to explain this to the Assembly.

In a statement to MLAs last November, he told them he was not an adviser to the community organisation.

He said: "I make it clear that, while I have offered advice, I do not hold and have never held a position as adviser to Charter NI.

"My involvement with Charter NI, as an organisation working on the ground in my constituency, has been no different than it would be with any organisation in my constituency seeking advice from their elected representative."

Image copyright Guardian
Image caption Dee Stitt is CEO of Charter NI

However, Spotlight obtained copies of Charter NI internal documents - including its board minutes - stretching back many years, and they repeatedly refer to Mr Newton as an adviser to the group.

The paperwork reveals that he had an important role in helping to run Charter NI, including attending full board meetings from mid-2012.

One set of minutes says that as an adviser he helped to "steer" the board and did "more than just go to the board meetings".

Documents also confirm he sat on Charter NI sub-committees, had a role in planning strategy, headhunted board members, and had extensive involvement in lobbying funders on Charter's behalf.

'Offered advice'

In a statement, Mr Newton told Spotlight that he has worked with and offered advice to all sections of the east Belfast community, including community organisations.

He said that some of his contacts have been formal, stronger or longer than others.

Spotlight asked him why he had not declared his full role in Charter NI to the assembly, but he did not directly address that question.

Charter NI is one of a number of community groups, with employees or ex-employees linked to the UDA, that were selected by the DUP and Sinn Féin for a role in the Social Investment Fund (SIF), leading to those organisations receiving significant sums of public money.

The Spotlight programme focused on claims the DUP and Sinn Féin used some of the £80m fund - which is set to cost £93m by 2020 - for community groups they appear to favour.

It also revealed new information about some DUP members' alleged associations with members of the UDA and UDA linked community groups.

In a statement, the Executive Office said: "Appropriate governance procedures are in place to ensure the programme is delivered and managed effectively."

The DUP said it "does not support or endorse paramilitary activity of any kind".

"There is no place for any paramilitary organisation in our society," it added.

Sinn Féin said it "stands over the enormously successful SIF projects that are being delivered in the communities we represent".

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