Iron Lady of unionism looks weak

Posted By: November 18, 2016

Allison Morris. Irish News (Belfast). Friday, November 18, 2016

By refusing to say that Dee Stitt should resign from his post as chief executive of a publicly funded organization, Arlene Foster, the Iron Lady of unionism, looks weak for the first time since taking over as First Minister.

Referring to the north Down UDA commander as a “distraction” was an understatement in the extreme.

His refusal to go quietly into the night has now tainted the Social Investment Fund, an £80 million pot of cash that has been distributed among groups on both sides of the divide across The North – the majority deserving, worthwhile and focused on tackling deprivation.

However, the controversy surrounding Charter NI is also a demonstration of the pitfalls of allocating public money without open competition through a system of steering groups, heavily stacked with allies who are more likely to recommend pet projects.

Those projects are often run by compliant organizations, some with ex-prisoners at the helm, and that can be an advantage in communities where outsiders are still treated with suspicion.

Charter NI was set up 10 years ago by former UPRG spokesman Frankie Gallagher. He has since departed Northern Ireland but the organization benefited from government funding at a time when former DUP leader Peter Robinson was frantically seeking votes from the loyalist community and survived and expanded.

Funding community groups employing paramilitary figures in hard-to-reach areas has become an acceptable part of the peace process, but to have absolutely no control over those groups and the actions of their senior management at a time when the government is trying to convince the public they’re taking a hard line against paramilitarism is nothing short of humiliating.

The situation with Dee Stitt and his refusal to step aside for the sake of the organization he heads up, taken in isolation, is deeply embarrassing for the executive.

But taken in the round it highlights a much bigger problem facing the coalition as we move forward on the first anniversary of the Fresh Start with grand plans to disband all remaining paramilitary structures.

Stitt’s refusal to relinquish power demonstrates the almost insurmountable task ahead in trying to do away with organizations concentrated in areas where the ‘big man’ is lord of his particular fiefdom.

If the executive doesn’t even have the power to ‘stand down’ one troublesome man, how do they expect to convince the public they can do it with the hundreds still signed up to those same illegal organizations?

The political controversy surrounding Dee Stitt is much bigger than one man and one £35,000-a-year job.