Belfast Telegraph

Stormont Speaker facing further questions over his Charter NI role

By Noel McAdam

Stormont Speaker Robin Newton is facing further questions despite making a full apology to the Assembly over his role with Charter NI.

Alliance leader Naomi Long insisted the DUP MLA's explanation did not go far enough, adding that he should provide further details.

But Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he accepted Mr Newton's unreserved apology after deciding to block an MLA's question demanding an inquiry into the east Belfast organisation, which received £1.7m of public funding under the Social Investment Fund (SIF).

Mr McGuinness also repeated his assertion that the chief executive of Charter NI, Dee Stitt, should "stand aside" following his controversial comments in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, in which he claimed his flute band in North Down provided "homeland security".

Intense focus has centred on the organisation and the SIF scheme since controversy flared over the appointment of convicted armed robber Stitt to the £35,000-a-year chief executive's role - into which the SDLP asked Mr Newton on October 24 to allow an Assembly debate.

Mr Newton admitted he now accepted he should have passed the decision to his deputy, Catriona Ruane of Sinn Fein - and pledged to "err on the side of caution" in future.

But he insisted he had never held any position as advisor with Charter NI, where Mr Stitt remains in post, with Mr McGuinness yesterday accepting he and First Minister Arlene Foster have no power to intervene.

Mr Newton's statement to the Assembly came after a number of media reports suggested he had been working for Charter NI in some capacity.

A post on the organisation's Facebook page back in May read: "Congratulations to our advisor Robin Newton MLA in being re-elected to represent the people of east Belfast. A post that he works hard for and highly deserves."

But Mr Newton told MLAs: "While I have offered advice, I do not hold and have never held a position as adviser to Charter NI. My involvement with Charter NI, as an organisation working on the ground in my constituency, has been no different than it would be with any organisation in my constituency seeking advice from its elected representative."

Mr Newton, however, sat on a steering group which awarded the £1.7m contract for an employment scheme to Charter NI - but said members from other parties also sit on similar bodies.

He then conceded he should not have ruled against a request lodged by the SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon because of concerns over a conflict of interest.

Later in the same week he did delegate a second request to Ms Ruane.

"I gave consideration to whether I should take the decision. Given the time pressure, I proceeded to take the decision, but, in doing so, made it clear to my office that, if future decisions were required, it would be prudent for me to delegate to avoid any perception of conflict," he said.

"In hindsight I accept it would have been better if I had followed my initial instincts and also delegated the first question. I apologise unreservedly to the House for not having done so. Members can be assured that I will err on the side of caution in the future."

But Mrs Long was unimpressed by his comments.

"To say 'time pressure' is not good enough - there were three deputies who could have stepped in," she said.

"If he would publicise the procedural advice he was given the public could be clear on the basis on which the Speaker made the decision to refuse the question on October 24, and ensure they can have confidence the decision was indeed impartial."

Belfast Telegraph


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