Independent review needed

Posted By: November 23, 2016

Irish News (Belfast). Editorial. Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The major concerns surrounding the publicly funded body Charter NI have now moved well beyond the future of its embattled chief executive Dee Stitt and reached a stage where some form of independent review of the entire debacle has become essential.

Yesterday the assembly Speaker Robin Newton, a DUP MLA, apologized “unreservedly” for his role in the latest twist in a saga which has dominated the headlines since this newspaper first revealed the full extent of the links between Charter NI and the illegal Ulster Defence Association.

Mr. Newton last month prevented attempts by SDLP representative Nichola Mallon to ask questions about Mr. Stitt and the allocation of a £1.7m grant from the Stormont Executive’s Social Investment Fund.

Indeed, the Speaker responded to subsequent protests by warning against challenges to his rulings and saying that he would not tolerate what he viewed as the abuse of procedure.

However, further investigations by the News Letter and the BBC’s Nolan program demonstrated that Mr. Newton had direct connections with Charter NI, which is based in his East Belfast constituency, in the recent past.

The Speaker yesterday expressed his regret for failing to declare the relationship although he caused further puzzlement by saying that he had given advice to Charter NI but had not been its adviser.

While Mr. Newton blamed time pressures for his error of judgment in blocking the question from Ms. Mallon,  rather than delegating it to a colleague, the affair has only added to the sense of alarm over the wider management of the Social Investment Fund.

It is an important initiative, with the potential to develop a range of employment opportunities in deprived areas, but its credibility was seriously damaged by the installation of Mr. Stitt in his £35,000 per year post with Charter NI.

He is widely regarded as a senior UDA member, and was taped making provocative remarks about involvement in “homeland security” and a loyalist band being “here to defend north Down from anybody” but was somehow able to shrug off calls for his resignation.

We are left with Mr. Stitt still behind his desk, queries piling up about the direction of Charter NI, the authority of the First and Deputy First Minister plainly undermined and a Stormont Speaker forced into an embarrassing U-turn.

A respected outside figure  urgently needs to complete a detailed assessment of the sequence of events and offer firm recommendations about the best way to move forward.

If instead, we continue to drift from one crisis to another, further public disenchantment with our devolved structures seems an inevitable consequence.