Belfast Telegraph

DUP's Foster silent as Speaker Newton refuses to resign over Charter NI revelations

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster is staying silent on the growing controversy around Speaker Robin Newton, who won't resign from his £87,500 a year job despite claims he misled the Assembly.

Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionists, SDLP, Alliance, the Greens and TUV were all united yesterday in calling on the DUP MLA to immediately step aside.

But Mrs Foster last night remained silent when the Belfast Telegraph contacted her to comment on her position on the Speaker staying in his job.

Meanwhile, Mr Newton issued a short statement but then went to ground and wouldn't give any media interviews.

In his statement, the East Belfast MLA denied allegations in a BBC Spotlight programme that he misled the Assembly over the true nature of his role with the UDA-linked organisation Charter NI. But he said he wouldn't run again for Speaker if the Assembly returns.

Spotlight reported that when Mr Newton blocked an urgent question on the awarding of public funds to the controversial charity last autumn, he hadn't revealed his key role as an adviser to the group.

The BBC obtained internal Charter NI papers, including copies of its board minutes, which it said proved that Mr Newton had "an important role in helping to run Charter NI, including attending full board meetings from mid-2012".

Mr Newton sat on a Social Investment Fund (SIF) steering group which awarded Charter NI a £1.7m contract.

The charity's chief executive is UDA boss Dee Stitt.

His North Down gang has been linked to drug dealing, racketeering and intimidation.

TUV leader Jim Allister said: "Rather than facing up to what he's done, Robin Newton is only digging an even deeper hole for himself.

"The documentary evidence shows he performed an advisory role in Charter NI and was a figure of importance within the charity."

Sinn Fein MLA Caral Ni Chuilin said Mr Newton's position as Speaker was "completely untenable".

She claimed he had "totally compromised the neutrality of that office" through his previous Assembly performance.

By refusing to resign, he was further eroding "public confidence in the Stormont institutions", she said.

"The Speaker should be above reproach and independently accountable to the political institutions," she said.

"Robin Newton should resign with immediate effect."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the revelations about Mr Newton raised important questions for both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

He said Mrs Foster must "very quickly" respond to the disclosures on Spotlight.

"The public have every right to be angry - the last 10 years of government in Northern Ireland has brought us scandals in RHI, Red Sky, NAMA and now SIF," he said.

"The Spotlight programme also contains huge questions for Sinn Fein - they cannot wash their hands of their role in all of this.

"As a party they were jointly responsible for SIF funds. They were jointly responsible for the channelling of funds to groups linked to the UDA. This was their status quo and they were up to their necks in it."

Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs said the issue went "right to the heart of public confidence in politics in Northern Ireland at a time when the credibility of Stormont is already at an all-time low".

He said the Speaker's office should be "above reproach" and rather than resign after he chairs the election of a new Speaker, Mr Newton "should simply go now".

Mr Beggs called for a "radical investigation" into SIF.

"It needs to get to the heart of how the SIF funds were used by the DUP and Sinn Fein," he said.

Alliance's David Ford said Mr Newton should resign as Speaker immediately.

"We would also seek to refer Mr Newton to the Commissioner for Standards, once there is a new person elected to that role," he added.

Mr Ford called for the Audit Office to launch an investigation into SIF.

"There also needs to be a revised paramilitary strategy which is backed by all parties (with) clearly defined goals and targets. Only by doing so can we finally remove the poison of paramilitarism from society," he added.

Green leader Steven Agnew claimed Mr Newton's "lack of candour" on his exact role in Charter NI had been "startling".

He added: "The entire issue of the distribution of SIF and Robin Newton's association with Charter NI has further eroded public trust and confidence in our institutions."

In his statement yesterday, Mr Newton said: "I reject the allegations in the Spotlight programme. I did not mislead the NI Assembly. I have never been appointed to any position with Charter NI. I am not responsible for how others refer to me in their correspondence. I will not be a candidate for Speaker in any new Assembly. At the next NI Assembly sitting, I will chair the election of a new Speaker as the first matter of business."

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