Belfast Telegraph

SIF Fund controversy: Why these slush funds for political patronage have no place in a democracy

But it's a bit rich of Sinn Fein to demand that Robin Newton be 'above reproach 'given its own paramilitary heritage, writes Eilis O'Hanlon.

What's in a name? In Northern Ireland, everything. Charter NI, for example, sounds harmless enough. If it was called "Let's Give Bucket Loads Of Free Cash To Loyalists", it wouldn't seem nearly so innocuous.

It's another reminder of how abnormality can become so ingrained in a society that normality itself becomes warped.

Take the current controversy involving Robin Newton. Four of the five main parties have now called on the DUP man to step down as Stormont Speaker following allegations on BBC's Spotlight that he acted as an adviser to Charter NI during a time when he was sitting on a panel which awarded £1.7m of public money to the organisation, and that he failed to declare this close association to the Assembly.

At the least, the BBC would seem to have uncovered sufficient hard evidence to make Newton's position untenable, though he vehemently denies the specific charge of being an adviser, insisting that "I have never been appointed to any position with Charter NI."

(See? It's all about the words used to describe things).

So far he's sticking to his story, as well as his £87k salary which continues to be paid despite the continuing political deadlock, and there are plenty of voices willing to defend him. But the outrage over his precise role in Charter NI does throw up some curiosities.

Regardless of whether he misled the chamber, which would be a serious matter in any parliament, isn't it bizarre that Sinn Fein should be demanding that Newton must be "above reproach and independently accountable" when themselves belonging to a party which has dubious ties to a paramilitary organisation, and whose independence is therefore, by definition, equally questionable?

Just because neither the DUP or SF have any right to camp on the moral high ground, though, doesn't mean this isn't a deeply strange state of affairs.

There are two issues here. One is whether Robin Newton was up front about his relationship with Charter NI. The other is the appropriateness of having such connections at all, whether acknowledged or otherwise.

It's not only Charter NI. The entire Social Investment Fund (SIF), which coughed up that £1.7m to Charter NI, is another masterpiece of what magicians call misdirection. It was set up to "make life better for people living in targeted areas by reducing poverty, unemployment and physical deterioration". Who could possibly be against that?

But who are the "local Steering Groups" which decide how this money should be "prioritised"? There are nine of them, each including up to 14 members from the business, political, voluntary and community sectors.

Again, that sounds great. Business people know how to get things done, and rarely allow ideology to get in the way of whatever works best. Voluntary organisations, likewise, are perfectly placed to identify people in need and to channel help towards them.

In practise, it doesn't work like that. There are some business representatives involved, though they tend to be of the managerial rather than entrepreneurial variety; but the greater number of places goes to political representatives, which, in practise, generally means either the DUP or Sinn Fein. There are a token few councillors and MLAs from other parties, and a smattering of civil servants, as well as representatives of local and community organisations, who all no doubt do sterling work for the various interests that they champion.

But many of those who are described as "voluntary" or "community" representatives would be more honestly called political delegates too, skewing the make up of some Steering Groups. That matters because everybody knows why that money is made available.

Euphemisms like "social investment" apart, it's basically an inducement to keep quiet some of those who might otherwise create difficulties on the ground on both sides. It doesn't always work, both because those with an inclination to make trouble tend to fall back into bad habits, and also because paying them off, as with any blackmailer, invariably encourages them to demand more.

But that's what it's for, and the latest controversy arises directly from the contradiction in allowing those linked to certain organisations to sit on committees which award large sums of money to others who are linked to those same organisations. If this was big business, it would be regarded as dodgy at best, and a downright conflict of interests at worst; but it's accepted because it's done under the guise of buzzwords such as "local development" and "community partnership."

If Spotlight is right about Robin Newton, it means that, in east Belfast, two of the 13 member Steering Group charged with handing out the Social Investment loot were effectively in there pitching on behalf of Charter NI. (The other being convicted UDA gunman Sam "Chalky" White, whose role with the body was never a secret).

In that sense this story is fairly straightforward. Robin Newton has been caught out being economical with the truth, so he has to go. People have a right to know who the people they pick to represent them are also representing behind the scenes. But the deeper picture is what it says about Northern Ireland, and whose concerns are served by the political system - is it being run by interest groups, many still tied to shadowy and unsavoury organisations, for the good of the public, or to satisfy their own continued greed for power or money?

All this may have emerged sooner had there been a proper investigation, but SF colluded with the DUP to prevent that, probably because they know it's a cash cow which keeps delivering the cream for their own former comrades too, as well as giving them the tight community control that they still desire. Those who are benefiting cannot be trusted to ensure the money is being properly spent since they're the ones who'd lose out from any crackdown.

The Social Investment Fund is only one piece of the financial jigsaw. There are other kitties, such as the Local Investment Fund, the Belfast Investment Fund, and EU peace money, dispensing millions to similar grass roots projects, with little oversight of how the money's spent, and, just as importantly, by whom it's being spent. It generates some jobs and apprenticeships, and that's great; it spruces up dilapidated areas, and that does help improve local areas.

But most ordinary people wouldn't have a clue how to get access to these funds, however badly needed. It's invariably those "in the know" who are best at pinpointing the goodies, like hogs snuffling out truffles.

Robin Newton's resignation would close one chapter of this saga, but the muck goes much deeper, and his critics are in it up their necks every bit as much as his friends.

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