UDA-linked community groups have been handed £5 million from a government kitty that has been compared to a paramilitary slush fund.
A Sunday Life investigation into the controversial Social Investment Fund (SIF) reveals how loyalist paramilitary figures who sit on the quango’s steering panels are demanding — and being given — massive amounts of public money for their pet projects.
Among those with huge influence over how the £80 million SIF budget is allocated is notorious Bangor UDA criminal Dee Stitt, who last week posed for photos with DUP First Minister Arlene Foster.
Other key players include the UDA’s former leader in the Maze Prison and Lisburn commander Adrian Bird, and convicted UDA gunman turned failed DUP council candidate Sam ‘Chalky’ White. All three paramilitaries were appointed to SIF steering panels, which recommend how cash is handed out, with DUP and Sinn Fein approval.
During the past two years Stitt, Bird and White have successfully lobbied for more than £5 million of taxpayers’ cash being spent on UDA-linked projects that pay their wages in Belfast, Lisburn and Bangor.
It must be stressed that not everyone in these organisations is a paramilitary, with most staff members being law-abiding and hard-working.
However, there can also be no doubt that each of the groups — Charter NI, The Hanwood Trust, Kilcooley Sports Forum, Belfast South Community Resources, and the Resurgam Trust — have UDA connections through the likes of Stitt, Birch, White, McDonald, Halliday and Bird.
SDLP MLA Claire Hanna last night expressed serious concerns about the handover of £5 million of public SIF cash to UDA-linked projects.
She said: “No matter how much the First Ministers try to brush off legitimate questions about SIF, this is an issue of serious concern.
“There is no openness or transparency about how this money is allocated, or how the multi-layered conflicts of interest have been addressed.”
Mrs Hanna said the SIF fund was “perpetuating the cancer of paramilitarism”, long after terror gangs should have been disbanded.
The South Belfast Assemblywoman also asked: “How can a person affected by paramilitary extortion, racism or drug dealing be expected to trust the same people to address the serious social problems in their neighbourhood? I am quite sure that there are some good people and projects funded by SIF, and it’s disappointing that they are left in the shade of these serious issues around funded paramilitary groups.”
UDA figures were appointed to the powerful SIF steering panels in 2012 following talks between the terror gang and the DUP. The discussions took place after concerns were raised within the party about it losing the working-class loyalist vote.
Later that year, eyebrows were raised when DUP MLA Alex Easton wrote a reference for feared Bangor UDA leader Dee Stitt in support of his application to join the SIF south-east steering panel.
The politician described the convicted gunman, who leads a gang of drug dealers and racketeers, as “outstanding”, although he later said he knew nothing of his paramilitary background.
Stitt, and his overall east Belfast UDA boss Jimmy ‘Millions’ Birch, also talked of their links to the DUP in a 2013 BBC Radio Ulster interview, during which they admitted being terrorists. Stitt confessed: “We’ve been linking into the biggest political party that’s there on the loyalist side.”
The interview took place at the height of the Union flag protests, which the UDA refused to become involved in through fear of upsetting the SIF funding apple-cart.
Another example of the UDA’s growing relationship with the DUP, forged through SIF, was when ex-prisoner Sam ‘Chalky’ White stood for the party in the 2014 council elections. The 58-year-old convicted gunman is a DUP-approved appointee to the SIF east Belfast steering group.
Since the beginning of the year, more than £3.2m of SIF money has been handed out to UDA-linked groups.
On each occasion, DUP First Minister Arlene Foster and senior party figures have posed with known loyalist paramilitaries welcoming the cash injections.
In April, Adrian Bird — the UDA’s Lisburn boss and ex-Maze Prison leader — was pictured next to Mrs Foster celebrating the allocation of £1.5m to his Resurgam project. Also in the image were the DUP MLAs Edwin Poots, Paul Givan, Brenda Hale and Jonathan Craig.
Last week, Mrs Foster was pictured next to UDA boss Dee Stitt welcoming the handover of £1.7 million of SIF cash to Charter NI, of which the paramilitary is chief executive. Photographed with them was DUP councillor Sharon Skillen, who is a big supporter of Charter NI, which was founded to support UDA prisoners.