Stormont heads back fund for disadvantaged as opposition politicians urge review
Stormont's leaders have defended the workings of a controversial fund that distributed £80 million to disadvantaged communities amid demands for it to be halted.
Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of a UK watchdog on standards in public life, has joined mounting calls from opposition politicians for a major review of the Social Investment Fund (SIF).
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness rebuffed Sir Alistair's remarks.
"We are not accountable to Sir Alistair Graham, we are accountable to our own electorate," he said.
"The SIF scheme has been the most open, consulted-upon scheme imaginable, with huge support from the community and voluntary sector and widespread support within our community."
The Sinn Fein veteran added: "As far as we are concerned our focus is on delivery and the £80 million has been distributed and has now been put to good use."
First Minister Arlene Foster said she was more focused on the positive difference the fund was making rather than what she described as "process issues".
The Democratic Unionist leader noted that a public consultation had been done on proposals for the fund and said "no issues were raised".
"It is disappointing that when we do try to do something different, something innovative to try to make a difference and deliver on the ground that this is the attitude that's brought forward," she said.
"But we are focused on delivery, we are not focused on process issues and people can look at those process issues because we have absolutely nothing to hide in relation to those process issues - but for us it's about delivering."
The leaders, who claim the fund ensures those working on the ground can shape its direction, were asked about the controversy as they attended the North South Ministerial Council meeting in Armagh.
The fund was established by the Stormont Executive during the last Assembly mandate to allocate millions of pounds to disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland.
The Executive 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.
Sir Alistair, the former chairman of the Committee for Standards in Public Life, claimed there were clear conflict-of-interest issues.
"I think they have a flawed process that doesn't stand up to the principles that are generally held to be appropriate for the awarding of public contracts," he told BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show.
"They really need a root-and-branch review of the arrangements they have in place."
Intense public attention has focused on the SIF since controversy flared over the appointment of alleged loyalist paramilitary leader Dee Stitt to the chief executive's role at Charter NI - an organisation handed control of £1.7 million as a lead partner overseeing an employability initiative in east Belfast.
The convicted armed robber, 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.
Mrs Foster has said she does not regret standing alongside Mr Stitt at a recent SIF-related photocall.