Belfast Telegraph

DUP Assembly Speaker Newton 'misled Stormont' over role at ex-prisoners' charity Charter NI

By Suzanne Breen

Stormont speaker Robin Newton allegedly misled the Assembly on the exact nature of his role within Charter NI, a BBC programme claimed last night.

Spotlight alleged that the DUP MLA held a role in the ex-prisoners' charity which he did not declare.

He was a member of the east Belfast Social Investment Fund (SIF) steering group which awarded Charter NI a £1.7m contract.

Mr Newton blocked an urgent question in the Assembly last October on the awarding of public funding to the charity.

Charter NI's chief executive is reputed UDA boss Dee Stitt. His gang in North Down has been linked to drug dealing, racketeering and intimidation.

The charity's Facebook page referred to the Stormont Speaker as the group's adviser. Mr Newton had not revealed that role when blocking the question about the organisation.

Last November, he told the Assembly: "I apologise unreservedly to the house for not having done so. I will err on the side of caution in the future.

"I make it clear that while I have offered advice, I do not hold and have never held a position as an advisor 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."

But last night's Spotlight revealed that the charity's internal documents dating back several years referred to Mr Newton as an adviser to the group.

The papers, obtained by the programme, included copies of its board minutes. The BBC said they proved that the Speaker had "an important role in helping to run Charter NI, including attending full board meetings from mid-2012". It claimed that one set of minutes stated that, as an adviser, Mr Newton helped to "steer" the board and did "more than just go to the board meetings".

Spotlight alleged that Mr Newton sat on Charter NI sub-committees, was involved in planning the group's strategy, head-hunted board members, and played a considerable role in lobbying funders.

The Stormont question which was blocked asked the First and Deputy First Ministers to conduct a review into the funding to Charter NI.

Mr Newton remains Speaker even though the Assembly isn't functioning.

Former Alliance leader David Ford told the BBC that if the Speaker had failed to declare being directly involved with the board of an organisation which receives public money "then I think that would be a very significant breach of the rules which MLAs are bound by".

He added: "It would then be something which would have to be investigated by the Commissioner for Standards."

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon claimed that the information obtained by the BBC appeared to be in conflict with what the DUP MLA had stated in the Assembly last autumn.

"The Speaker outlined a role that was very passive and didn't in any way indicate the length or breadth of activity that you have shared with me," she told Spotlight.

"Therefore, it leads you to ask the question, why was the Speaker not up front when he had the opportunity to do so in front of all of his MLA colleagues?"

In a statement to Spotlight, Mr Newton said he had worked with, and offered advice to, all sections of the east Belfast community, including community groups.

Some of his contacts had been formal and stronger or longer than others, he added.

Spotlight said that when asked why he had not declared his full role in Charter NI to the Assembly, Mr Newton "did not directly address this question".

The programme also revealed new information about some DUP members' alleged associations with UDA members and community groups linked to the paramilitary organisation.

In a statement last night, the DUP said it did not "support or endorse paramilitary activity of any kind" and that there was "no place for any paramilitary organisation in our society".

Charter NI was initially set up to help UDA ex-prisoners, but it has expanded rapidly in recent years with millions of pounds in government funding.

The process to distribute funds from the £80m SIF has been described as "flawed" and in need of root and branch reform.

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