Speaker lobbied for Charter NI cash

Posted By: January 06, 2017

Robin Newton was appointed Assembly speaker last May

Susan Thompson. Irish News. Belfast. Friday, January 6, 2017

UNDER-fire Stormont Speaker Robin Newton was lobbying for money for Charter NI just weeks before ruling against an urgent debate on its funding.

As pressure mounts on Mr Newton to resign over his handling of last month’s Renewable Heat Incentive debate in the Assembly, The Irish News has received a copy of a letter which for the first time shows that he was lobbying on behalf of the East Belfast organization while he was the speaker.

In the correspondence dated September 14, 2016, Mr. Newton wrote to Anne Connolly, chair of the

Northern Ireland Policing Board, asking for a meeting to discuss “pupil underachievement.”

He asked to bring along Drew Haire, the chairman of Charter NI and a senior member of an east Belfast primary school.

The East Belfast MLA, who became speaker in May, has come under increasing scrutiny since he apologized to the Assembly for failing to declare that he had offered advice to Charter NI in the past.

The Charity has come under fire because it receives public funding yet its chief executive is Dee Stitt, an alleged UDA boss.

In the autumn, Mr. Newton was criticized after blocking two assembly questions tabled by SDLP politician Nichola Mallon on Charter NI.

He later apologized unreservedly to fellow MLAs for not delegating his decision.

The request for a meeting with the Policing Board was to discuss a proposal from Charter NI for funding from the Police Property Fund, which distributes money seized during police investigations to charity.

The meeting did not take place.

A spokesperson for the Policing Board said that Ms. Connolly wrote back to Mr. Newton explaining that it would not be appropriate to meet Charter NI because the policy around the fund and the allocation of the money had not been agreed upon.

Ms. Mallon said: “This correspondence clearly shows that just a month before the speaker ruled against my urgent oral question, based on public interest, in the Assembly about the funding of Charter NI through the Social Investment Fund, he was trying to arrange meetings for that same organization to secure Policing Board funding.”

John Dallat, Stormont’s former deputy speaker, and acting speaker, called for Mr. Newton to resign.

“I think his position is untenable,” he said.

Mr. Dallat said it was “unimaginable” that the speaker of any parliament across the world would block a question to a minister which dealt with something as serious as government funding to an organization with alleged paramilitary links.

In Mr. Newton’s East Belfast constituency Charter NI is overseeing the delivery of an employment scheme as part of the executive’s contentious Social Investment Fund (SIF).

Last month, it emerged that Mr. Newton had been campaigning for £90,000 from the Police Property Fund to be directed to Charter NI in March – just weeks before he was named speaker.

A DUP spokesperson said: “Robin Newton MLA has helped Charter as part of his East Belfast constituency duties as we would expect him to do and as he has helped out many other community groups across East Belfast.

“He has made a statement to the Assembly on these issues and indicated he was reviewing his constituency duties. Such issues are a matter for the Speaker’s Office.”