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Calls to stop charity funding over 'paramilitary activity links'

Calls have been made to stop funding an east Belfast charity after police linked some of its members to recent paramilitary activity.

Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin said he believed individuals involved with Charter NI were connected with the outlawed Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and had engaged in recent illegal activity.

Opposition leader Mike Nesbitt said the police analysis must be taken seriously.

The Ulster Unionist said: " This has to be the tipping point.

"The Assistant Chief Constable couldn't be any clearer with his assessment and the penny seems to have finally dropped with the Executive.

"Given the assessment of the PSNI Assistant Chief Constable, the Executive Office should move to suspend funding to Charter NI."

The charity, whose chief executive is convicted armed robber Dee Stitt, is overseeing the delivery of a £1.7 million employment scheme in east Belfast as part of the Stormont Executive's £80 million Social Investment Fund (SIF).

Mr Stitt, who denies being a UDA chief, has faced down repeated 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, the North Down Defenders provided "homeland security".

ACC Martin did not name anyone he believed was linked to paramilitarism, but said: " Charter as an organisation, we have seen, do good work on the ground but clearly there are connections within that organisation to the UDA.

The senior officer made the comments during an interview with the BBC's Nolan Show.

He added: " I would believe certainly that there may be an individual or individuals connected to Charter who have certainly been recently active.

"There are people who will have been members for a long time who keep their head down and have no active role in it other than they're members and there will be people who are involved in crime at the other end and there will be a different blurring of membership in that spectrum."

Alliance Party Deputy Leader, Stephen Farry, said the evaluation took the controversy surrounding government funding to Charter NI to a "new level".

He said: "Hopefully, the comments from ACC Martin will finally bring this to a head. However, it is now essential that the Executive Office suspends all payments to Charter and puts in place arrangements whereby GEMS can directly deliver the SIF Employability Project in East Belfast."

Meanwhile, in a statement Charter NI's board of directors said PSNI comments had come as a "surprise".

It said: "The consistent position of the Board of Charter NI is that we do not condone illegal or criminal activity of any kind.

"We reaffirm our support for any prosecution brought by the PSNI of any person where there is evidence of involvement in illegal activity.

"The comments made by the ACC come as a surprise to us particularly as we have regular involvement with PSNI officers in a number of our projects who have given no indication of concerns about current paramilitary activity by an individual or individuals connected with Charter NI."

The organisation said board members would be seeking an urgent meeting with the PSNI to discuss the assessment and would take "whatever action" was deemed necessary.

The Executive Office described the remarks as "not insignificant" and said there would be no acceptance of illegal actions.

A spokesman also said they were seeking further clarity from the police.

"Where there is evidence of criminal activity, we expect the police to investigate and bring those responsible before the courts. Courts and jail are the only place for anyone involved in paramilitarism.

"All those associated with Charter or any community enterprise must make a clear choice between paramilitarism and legitimate community work.

"There can be no acceptance of or ambivalence towards illegal activity," the statement said.

Sinn Fein's policing spokesman Gerry Kelly said he too was seeking an urgent meeting with the PSNI to discuss the matter.

He said: "There can be no place for criminality or paramilitarism in any sector of our society.

"It's important to acknowledge that legitimate community organisations and community activists make a huge contribution to society. They make a real difference delivering services on the ground where they are most needed.

"It is unfortunate that their efforts are being overshadowed by the criminality and paramilitary activity of a tiny number of people.

"Therefore I will be urging the PSNI to ensure that where there is any evidence of criminal activity, they do all in their power to bring those responsible before the courts."

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