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McGuinness's impotence over Dee Stitt affair shows us that DUP dominates the Executive

Deputy First Minister reduced to echoing DUP MP's criticisms of Charter NI boss, says Alban Maginness

Published 30/11/2016

Martin McGuinness only asked Charter NI boss Dee Stitt to consider his position
Martin McGuinness only asked Charter NI boss Dee Stitt to consider his position
Dee Stitt

At a time when the most severely injured in the Troubles are having serious political difficulty in seeking what is a very modest pension to alleviate their difficult circumstances, we have to endure the scandal of the continued employment of an alleged UDA commander, Dee Stitt, as the CEO of Charter NI, an organisation which is fully publicly funded.

Despite reports to the contrary, Stitt has remained in place and crassly refuses to leave his post. His credibility as a reformed loyalist paramilitary-cum-community leader and now responsible CEO is nil, given his outrageous comments in an interview with the Guardian newspaper.

If that was not bad enough, he has most recently been reported as saying the most abusive and belligerent comments about warders in the former Maze Prison, where he served a sentence for UDA activities.

Hardly the stuff of a repentant ex-prisoner in whom you would have confidence in reshaping loyalist grassroots thinking.

Charter NI has recently received a grant of £1.7m from what is known as the Social Investment Fund (SIF), which has a huge £80m to dispense to various similar community organisations and groups - mostly in loyalist and republican areas.

The governance arrangements for the distribution of this enormous amount of public money are highly questionable.

They seem curiously slack, weighed in favour of certain groups and show no proper competitive tendering, as is properly required for any taxpayers' money.

Steering groups who appoint lead partners are paid a "management fee" to appoint specific groups to actually deliver community projects on the ground.

No wonder, then, that Jim Allister MLA and others have referred to the fund as a "slush fund".

Sir Alastair Graham, the thoroughly independent former UK chair of the Standards in Public Life Committee, has publicly intervened to say that there are clear conflict of interest issues in the way this fund is governed.

Martin McGuinness summarily dismissed this intervention by arrogantly saying that, "We are not accountable to Sir Alistair Graham, but to our own electorate".

First Minister Arlene Foster has also refused to call for the removal of Dee Stitt, saying that it is an "internal matter" for Charter NI.

Of course, it is not simply an internal matter, as his continuance in position as CEO will continue to embarrass and stalk her and her compliant Deputy First Minister, and also further damages a project which is a key element of their joint programme.

She may yet live to regret the jolly publicity photographs that she had taken with Dee Stitt.

Already, it has caused serious damage to the standing of the likeable Speaker of the Assembly, Robin Newton, who bizarrely (and wrongly) refused an urgent oral question tabled by the tireless and persistent North Belfast MLA Nichola Mallon about the Stitt affair and its £1.7m grant, even though he was aware of an advisory relationship that he previously had with Charter NI.

He blamed time pressures for his error of judgment in blocking her urgent question, rather than delegating it to a deputy Speaker.

In any other parliamentary institution, he would have been lucky not to be forced to resign.

Arlene Foster's dealing with this whole affair has been a disaster and calls into question her leadership ability. She has to learn to be prime ministerial and not be beholden to vested interests in loyalism.

It is not just the question of whether Dee Stitt should go, or not, but her attitude to unreformed, defiant residual loyalist paramilitarism that is the central issue.

They have simply not evolved over the past two decades and still retain an unhealthy stranglehold on working-class communities in north Down and east Belfast and elsewhere.

By her inaction against Stitt, she is seen to be clerking to the worst elements in loyalism, instead of challenging their sinister grip. That simply maintains the blight they have on real community development.

Arlene needs to challenge this scourge, but the way this fund is being operated will mean no worthwhile change.

But there is a challenge also for Sinn Fein and McGuinness, who, although he asked Stitt to consider his position, has done little else - possibly because he realises that this fund may well have further implications on the republican side of things.

He is, in any case, powerless to change Arlene's mind and would look even more impotent if he applied more public pressure, which would simply fail. It is an embarrassing position for him to be in.

Isn't it remarkable that McGuinness can only echo the critical comments of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP on Dee Stitt, thereby demonstrating his powerlessness and the increasing dominance of the DUP in the Executive?

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