Belfast Telegraph

DUP's Newton to stand down as Speaker - and rejects BBC claims he misled Stormont

Calls for immediate resignation

By Jonathan Bell

DUP Speaker Robin Newton has rejected allegations made in a BBC Spotlight programme he misled the Assembly but said he will not seek re-election to the position.

The East Belfast MLA says he will stay in the role until the next Assembly sitting to preside over the election of the new Speaker.

It comes as Alliance MLA David Ford called for Stormont Speaker Robin Newton to resign immediately.

Spotlight alleged the East Belfast MLA misled the Assembly on the exact nature of his role within ex-prisoners organisation, the UDA-linked Charter NI.

In a statement Mr Newton rejected the allegations.

He 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."

The power-sharing crisis at Stormont means the Assembly has not been sitting since earlier this year. It is still not clear whether it will reconvene in the short term.

As Speaker, Mr Newton is paid a salary of £87,500.

Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the UUP have all called for Mr Newton to resign.

On Wednesday morning, David Ford called for Mr Newton to resign as speaker immediately and for an investigation to be conducted into the matter once a Assembly Commissioner for Standards was in place.

“If these allegations are true, and judging by the documents unveiled on Spotlight, they are, then the Speaker has no option but to resign his role with immediate effect,” said Mr Ford.

Alliance, the South Antrim MLA said, would not support Mr Newton's re-election for speaker based not only on latest revelation, but on how the Speaker had "mishandled" debates on RHI and his party's call for an investigation on the Social Investment Fund (SIF).

Mr Ford said there was "even more reason" now for a probe into the running of the SIF scheme.

“Alliance recognises people with a paramilitary past can play a positive and constructive role in society," he continued.

"But when people with a paramilitary present are doing so, there is a problem. That is the situation with some individuals in Charter NI.

“We have serious concerns about the lack of fairness and effective use of resources being directed towards certain groups, which is why we wrote in the summer to ask for an Audit Office investigation into SIF.

“There also needs to be a revised paramilitary strategy which is backed by all parties and which has clearly defined goals and targets. Only by doing so can we finally remove the poison of paramilitarism from society.”

Last year, Mr Newton apologised unreservedly to fellow MLAs for not delegating a decision to refuse an Assembly question on the controversy surrounding Charter NI.

In October 2016, he rejected a request for the Assembly to hear an urgent oral question on the charity and the conduct of its chief executive and alleged UDA commander Dee Stitt.

The Speaker represents the constituency where Charter NI is overseeing the delivery of an employment scheme as part of the Stormont Executive's contentious Social Investment Fund (SIF).

Mr Newton sat on a steering group that awarded the £1.7 million contract to Charter NI.

He told the Assembly he had also provided advice to the charity as part of constituency duties, though he insisted he never held an official position as an adviser.

After explaining the extent of his past involvement with the charity, Mr Newton then conceded he should not have ruled on the October 24, 2016 request lodged by the SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon due to conflict of interest concerns.

Intense public attention focused on Charter NI and the wider SIF scheme since controversy flared late last year over the appointment of convicted armed robber Stitt to the £35,000-a-year chief executive's role.

Stitt, 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".

The SIF fund was established by the Stormont Executive to allocate £80 million to disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland.

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