Assembly speaker issues apology over controversy surrounding Charter NI question
The Assembly speaker has apologised unreservedly to fellow MLAs for not delegating a decision to refuse a question on the controversy surrounding charity Charter NI.
Robin Newton last month rejected a request for the Assembly to hear an urgent oral question on the publicly-funded charity and the conduct of its chief executive and alleged UDA commander Dee Stitt.
The Speaker is a DUP MLA in the east Belfast constituency where Charter NI is overseeing the delivery of an employment scheme as part of the Stormont Executive's contentious Social Investment Fund (SIF).
Mr Newton sat on a steering group that awarded the £1.7 million contract to Charter NI. He told the Assembly he had also provided advice to the charity as part of constituency duties, though he insisted he never held an official position as an adviser.
After explaining the extent of his past involvement with the charity, Mr Newton conceded he should not have ruled on the October 24 request lodged by the SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon due to conflict of interest concerns.
He delegated a later urgent oral question around the same issue, lodged last week, to Sinn Fein Principal Deputy Speaker Caitriona Ruane. He said he did not do the same with Ms Mallon's initial question due to "time pressure".
"In hindsight I accept it would have been better if I had followed my initial instincts and also delegated the first question," he told MLAs at the start of Assembly business on Monday.
"I apologise unreservedly to the House for not having done so. Members can be assured that I will err on the side of caution in the future."
Mr Newton said he found the constraints his office placed on his ability to represent his constituents in the Assembly "particularly difficult".
"Members can expect me to be extremely cautious in the future in relation to where my responsibilities as a speaker and constituency member interact," he said.
He added: "I have clearly heard and understand the concerns that members have raised, I hope a number of points are now on the record to make it clear that lessons have been learned and steps take for the future."
Intense public attention has focused on Charter NI and the wider SIF scheme since controversy flared over the appointment of convicted armed robber Stitt to the £35,000 a year chief executive's role.
Stitt, who denies being a UDA chief, faced down calls for his resignation in the wake of a newspaper interview in which he launched a foul-mouthed tirade against the Government and claimed his flute band in North Down provided "homeland security".
Pressure remains on Mr Stitt despite being allowed to keep his job following an internal review by Charter NI, but the furore has prompted a wider political row on the operation of the SIF scheme.
The fund was established by the Stormont Executive during the last Assembly mandate to allocate £80 million to disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland.
The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (now called The Executive Office) appointed political, community, statutory and business representatives to steering groups - these appointees then, in turn, appointed organisations to oversee and manage the community schemes.
The chosen groups were called "lead partners" and were paid a management fee for their work.
The lead partnership bodies then, in turn, appointed specific groups to deliver the individual projects on the ground.
Controversy surrounds the middle link in the four-tier structure - the relationship between the steering groups and the lead partnership organisations.
Criticisms have been levelled around the fact organisations represented on the steering groups could appoint themselves to a remunerated lead partnership role, without a tendering process.
There have also been claims around a lack of rigorous background checks on those controlling the money and questions on why formal votes on the appointment of lead partners were not apparently commonplace on the steering groups.
Mr Newton was a political member of the East Belfast steering group that awarded a lead partner contract to Charter NI.
In his statement to the House, the Speaker responded to reports that he had once acted as an adviser to the charity.
"In relation to Charter NI, while I have offered advice I do not hold and have never held a position as adviser to Charter NI," he said.
"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.
"I have supported Charter NI in projects they are working on for the benefit of my constituents."